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Guest column: Let's talk stroke prevention and thinking FAST

Capital (Annapolis, MD)


A stroke happens suddenly and often without warning. One minute you're fine. The next minute you're not. It's like a car crash -- it happens fast.

Perhaps it's that swift onset that makes some people think you can't prevent a stroke.

There's nothing you can do that guarantees you will never have a stroke. Yet there are a number of steps you can take to beat the odds of having a stroke.

Control blood pressure. High blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke. High blood pressure means the force of the blood pushing against the sides of your arteries is consistently in the high range. This makes your heart work harder and weakens arteries and makes them at risk for rupture, leading to a stroke. (Most people should set their sights on having a blood pressure measure of less than 120/80 mm Hg).

Don't smoke. Cigarette smoking is a major -- and preventable -- risk factor for stroke. Carbon monoxide from smoking reduces the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to the brain, increasing stroke risk. It also makes your blood thicker and more likely to clot, which can lead to a stroke.

Control diabetes. Diabetes damages blood vessels, including those in the brain. Controlling your blood sugar level can help you avoid complications that raise the risk of stroke.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight can lead to a build up of plaque in your arteries. Eventually, the area of plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot to form. This can block the flow of blood to your brain and cause a stroke. The risk of stroke increases as one's body mass index increases.

Know the warning signs. But while serious car accidents are typically loud and unmistakable, a stroke can be a quiet calamity -- unless someone is paying close attention, it can go unnoticed for a very long time. The damage, though, can be devastating.

With stroke, speed is vital. If you or someone near you is having a stroke, call 911 right away for emergency medical help. If someone is showing symptoms, remember to think FAST:

FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face drop?

ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one drift downward?

SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?

TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

The brain is a remarkable organ. People who have minor strokes can and do recover. Those with more serious deficits from a stroke may have serious permanent disabilities but can still lead a productive life. If you or a loved one have suffered a stroke and are recovering, talking to someone who has been down a similar path may be helpful.

A peer support group matches stroke survivors with trained veteran stroke survivors. For peer support groups in your area, contact the National Stroke Association. In this area, visit for more information on the "Power of 2" program.

By knowing, recognizing and acting on the signs and symptoms of a stroke, you can significantly reduce the damage one can cause. Talk to your doctor about how you can lower your risk for a stroke.

Dr. Alex Katcheves is a neurologist at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

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