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Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine

 Fact sheet

What is stroke?
How common are strokes?
Who is at risk of having a stroke?
How can you prevent a stroke?
Who should be screened?
What are the symptoms of a stroke?
Where can I find more information?

What is a stroke?
Stroke is a very serious problem that develops when there is an interruption in the flow of blood to the brain. Also known as cerebrovascular accidents or "brain attacks", there are two main types of strokes. If a blood vessel is blocked by clots or other particles, it is called an ischemic stroke. If a blood vessel breaks and bleeds, it is called a hemorrhagic stroke.

Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain. When blood flow to part of the brain stops, that part of the brain starts to die within minutes. The dying cells then release chemicals that can damage other cells. The effects of a stroke depend on which part of the brain is starved of blood and for how long. Because of this, it is very important that anyone showing symptoms of a stroke (see below) get medical treatment as soon as possible.

Related to strokes are episodes called transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). A TIA (often called a "ministroke") is caused by a short interruption in blood flow to the brain. The effect, though, is only temporary, and symptoms last less than 24 hours. However, a TIA can be an important warning sign because about one third of people who have a TIA will have a stroke in the future. Anyone who experiences a TIA should see their doctor immediately to learn about special steps (including possible medications and surgery) that can decrease the risk of a future stroke.

Use of certain kinds of street drugs, like cocaine, amphetamines and heroin, also increases the risk of stroke.

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How common are strokes?
Stroke is the third leading cause of death, after coronary heart disease and cancer. Each year there are about 600,000 strokes in the US, and strokes kill over 150,000 Americans each year. Over 15% of people who have had a stroke die within 30 days, and 15-30% of people who survive a stroke are permanently disabled.

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Who is at risk for having a stroke?
Anyone can have a stroke but most people who have strokes are over the age of 55. Strokes affect both men and women. African Americans tend to be at highest risk, but people of all races and ethnicities suffer from strokes.

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How can you prevent a stroke?
There are many things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke:
  • don't smoke
  • keep your blood pressure under control
  • stay physically active
  • if you have diabetes, treat it
  • eat a healthy diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • keep your blood cholesterol under control
  • avoid illegal drug use
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Who should be screened?
For people without symptoms, there are no good screening tests for predicting stroke. Your doctor may do an exam to listen for partial blockage of the vessels in your neck that supply blood to your brain. If you have any symptoms of blocked blood vessels or special risk factors, your doctor may want to do other tests to study the vessels. Anyone who develops such symptoms (see below), should see a doctor immediately.

People of all ages should be periodically screened for risk factors of stroke: diabetes, high blood pressure, poor blood cholesterol levels and overweight/obesity.

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What are the symptoms of a stroke?
Sudden changes in your strength or sensation could indicate a transient ischemic attack or a stroke. If you experience any of the symptoms below, see a doctor immediately. Every minute is important when it comes to limiting damage and saving brain cells.

Symptoms of stroke:
  • Sudden weakness or numbness in your face, body, arms or legs, especially if only one side is affected
  • Sudden loss of vision or problems seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden confusion, inability to speak or understand what others are saying
  • Sudden dizziness, instability or inability to stand, walk or coordinate movement
  • Sudden severe, unexplained headache
For more information on strokes and transient ischemic attacks, visit these web sites: Back to top