A bad headache. Difficulty focusing. Confusion or fumbling to find words. It’s tempting to explain away troubling symptoms and chalk them up to fatigue, eye trouble, one too many cups of coffee. But these symptoms — particularly if they’re severe — may signal a stroke.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death, behind cancer and heart disease. A disease that affects the blood supply to the brain, stroke occurs when a blood vessel or artery is blocked by a blood clot or bursts. When this happens, the area of the brain that is supplied with oxygen and nutrients by this blood vessel is damaged. As a result, the body part or function controlled by this part of the brain doesn’t operate the right way.

People who have a stroke are four times as likely to have another stroke during their lifetime, according to the National Stroke Association. Recurrent strokes carry an even higher risk of death and disability because the brain has previously been injured by the original stroke.

Experts have also seen an increase in the incidence of stroke in young adults, with the greatest probable cause centered on the issue of obesity. A study of more than 2,300 people in the Baltimore area indicated that obese young adults were 57 percent more likely to experience a stroke than their non-obese peers. Much of that increased risk might be connected to the co-conditions often tied to obesity, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking.

A stroke can change a person’s life forever. It can leave the victim with moderate to severe physical, mental or psychological disabilities. Depending on the area of the brain affected, a stroke victim may lose their memory, speech, balance, certain fine motor skills, control over certain muscles or movement of entire limbs – even paralysis of one side of the body. A person’s personality or behavior can be forever changed by a stroke. They may have difficulty reading, processing information or even eating.

About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes, where a blockage of a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain occurs. The clot can form in the brain area, or in a blood vessel elsewhere in the body — the heart, chest area or neck — where it can break loose and travel to the brain.

The remaining 13 percent are called hemorrhagic strokes — strokes caused by a weakened blood vessel that breaks and bleeds into the surrounding brain tissue. A brain aneurysm refers to the bulging of the weakened blood vessel, which continues to weaken and, if not treated, breaks and bleeds into the brain.

Medical experts agree that medical treatment must be delivered for a stroke within three hours of the first symptom. If a stroke victim receives immediate medical assistance, a clot-busting drug can be administered by medical personnel. This may reduce the likelihood of long-term disability resulting from a stroke.

A lack of awareness results in patients that don’t seek immediate treatment. But to date, only limited public health and research efforts have been dedicated to addressing stroke in young adults.

The authors of one study suggest people should memorize the acronym “FAST”, which stands for: Face Drooping, Arm Weakness, Speech Difficulty; Time to Call 911.

Learn to recognize stroke signs, and be prepared — to save a friend or loved one’s life, or your own.

Remember that this information is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor, but rather to increase awareness and help equip patients with information and facilitate conversations with your physician that will benefit your health.

Sources: National Stroke Association, stroke.org; American Stroke Association, strokeassociation.org

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