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How to Recognize Stroke Symptoms and What to Do

Stroke SignsDear Savvy Senior,
What are the symptoms of a stroke? My 66-year-old aunt had a stroke a few months ago and neither she nor my uncle had a clue it was happening.

--Concerned Relative


Unfortunately, most Americans don’t know the signs of a stroke, but they need to. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and the No. 1 cause of disability. Being able to recognize a stroke and getting to the hospital quickly can make a huge difference in reducing its potentially devastating effects. Here are some tips that help you recognize a stroke, and what you should do if it happens to you or your loved one.

Types of Stroke
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year around 800,000 people in the United States have a stroke – three-quarters of which are over the age of 65. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries blood to the brain is suddenly blocked by a clot (ischemic stroke), or burst (hemorrhagic stroke), causing parts of the brain to become damaged or die. About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic.

Depending on the severity of the brain damage, strokes can cause mild to severe disabilities including paralysis, loss of speech, vision and memory, along with other health and emotional issues, and death.

Stroke Signs
Because stroke injures the brain, the person having a stroke may not realize it. Stroke victims have the best chance if someone around them recognizes the symptoms and acts quickly. The five most common symptoms include:
  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
The easiest way to identify a stroke is to use the F.A.S.T. test to identify the symptoms.

F (Face): Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A (Arm): Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S (Speech): Ask the person to say a simple sentence. Is their speech slurred?
T (Time): If you observe any of these signs of stroke, call 911.

To help you remember the signs, the American Stroke Association has a free “Spot a Stroke FAST” app (see strokeassociation.org) that you can download on your smartphone or mobile device. Or, visit the National Stroke Association at stroke.org and print their Act FAST wallet card to keep as a reminder.

Act Quickly
Remember that stroke is a medical emergency and every minute counts. Even if you’re not sure a stroke is happening, call 911 anyway. The longer blood flow is cut off to the brain, the greater the damage. Immediate treatment can save a person’s life and improve their chances for a successful recovery.

Ischemic strokes are treated with a drug called t-PA that dissolves the blood clots that block the blood flow to the brain. The window of opportunity to start treating a stroke is three hours. But to be evaluated and receive treatment, patients need to get to the hospital within 60 minutes.

If you have a choice, wait for the paramedics rather than driving the patient yourself. Patients who are transported by EMS are evaluated and treated much quicker than people who are driven in. And, of course, don’t drive if you are the one having a stroke.

It’s also very important that you call 911 even if symptoms go away. When symptoms of stroke disappear on their own after a few minutes, a “mini-stroke” or transient ischemic attack (TIA) may have occurred which is a warning that a major stroke may be coming. That’s why mini-strokes need to be treated like emergences too.
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