Disease Prevention Article:

Stroke: Prevention Is the Best Treatment

by Dr. Kyra Becker
University of Washington Regional Stroke Center at Harborview

Although the risk of stroke increases as we age, preventive steps can dramatically lessen the chances that older adults will suffer the devastating effects of this leading cause of disability and third leading cause of death in the United States.

There are a number of risk factors for stroke that can be directly modified by medications or lifestyle changes. Here are a few ways you can decrease the chances that you will suffer a stroke.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the most important condition that should be modified to help prevent stroke. The lower the blood pressure the better - for most people, that means a reading of less than 140/85. For people with diabetes, it should be even lower.

Smoking significantly increases the risk of stroke. The good news is that if you stop smoking, over time, you can reduce the risk of stroke back to that of a non-smoker. Many programs exist to help older adults stop smoking. For a list, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464) or visit the Web site at www.4elders.org/resources/, then click on "Stop-Smoking Assistance".

Diabetes is associated with an increased risk of stroke, and aggressive blood sugar control probably decreases that risk.

High cholesterol can also contribute to stroke. While cholesterol-lowering medications known as "statins" appear to decrease the risk of stroke, the best way to keep your cholesterol within acceptable levels is to exercise, maintain a healthy weight, and limit your intake of fats and other high-cholesterol foods. Healthy diet and exercise can also lower the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, further reducing the risk of stroke.

Medications prescribed by your physician can treat conditions that may cause stroke. Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm that is very common in the elderly, occurring in 10 percent or more of people over the age of 80. The risk of stroke for people with atrial fibrillation can be decreased by as much as 50 percent by medicines that thin the blood (anticoagulants).

If preventive efforts fail, it is important to recognize the symptoms of stroke in order to benefit from new medicines that can minimize the detrimental effects of a stroke if they are administered immediately.

Here are some of the symptoms of stroke:

  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the body.
  • Loss of vision in one eye or to one side of the body; double vision.
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech.
  • Vertigo (the sensation of spinning), especially when it occurs with any of the other symptoms.
  • Sudden onset of the worst headache of your life.

Along with new medications that, if given within three hours of a stroke can increase the likelihood of quick recovery, an aspirin at the time of stroke onset is also helpful and a daily aspirin after a stroke can help prevent recurrent strokes.

For more information on stroke or any other issue affecting your life as an older adult, visit the Web site at www.4elders.org or call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464), a free and confidential resource sponsored by the Healthy Aging Partnership - a coalition of 28 nonprofit and public senior service organizations in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties.