A stroke is a health condition that can seem unpredictable and cause permanent damage. But knowing stroke basics can help you be better prepared.

A stroke may seem like something that only happens to other people — typically older individuals that are in poor health and also have heart disease. But in reality, a stroke can happen to many different kinds of people and have a range of effects on their health, life, and physical and mental abilities.

Stroke: The 411

Simply put, a stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA), is what happens when blood can’t reach the brain. It may be caused by one of two main reasons: a blood clot or other blockage in an artery keeps blood from reaching the brain, causing a stroke; or a blood vessel bursts, causing a hemorrhagic stroke. When blood, and the crucial nutrients and oxygen it carries, can’t reach the brain, brain cells can quickly die and leave permanent damage.

About 795,000 Americans have a stroke each year, and 130,000 of them will die as a result. There are approximately 7 million stroke survivors in the United States today, and many have permanent disability caused by their stroke.

Although strokes are the fourth most frequent cause of death in the United States, the good news is that nearly 80 percent of strokes can be prevented by making lifestyle choices that promote good health.

Stroke: Know the Symptoms

The warning signs of a stroke may include:

  • Visual problems like a sudden change in vision or sudden double vision
  • Numbness of the face, weak arms or legs, and/orweakness on one side of the body
  • Disorientation, problems with speech (e.g., slurred speech), and/or trouble understanding others
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, and/or loss of balance or coordination
  • Painful headache that comes on suddenly and has no known cause

Stroke: Risk Factors

Some stroke factors can be controlled; others can’t. Here are some key risk factors that you should be aware of:

  • Age. Once you turn 55, your risk of stroke practically doubles every decade.
  • Family and personal history. If a close family member has had a stroke, or if you have had a stroke, TIA (transient ischemic attack, a small stroke that causes little or no damage), or heart attack, your stroke risk is increased.
  • Other health conditions. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, atrial fibrillation, and sickle cell anemia are all factors that increase your risk for stroke.
  • Your lifestyle. Smoking cigarettes, eating a high-fat and/or high-sodium diet, being obese, and not getting enough exercise can all increase your risk of stroke.

Stroke: Early Treatment

Every second counts when restoring blood flow to the brain because with every second lost, more brain cells die. Early recognition of stroke symptoms is crucial — the sooner treatment is given, the better.

One of the best treatments for blood clots — the cause of ischemic strokes — is tissue plasminogen activator, or t-PA, a clot-busting drug that works quickly to dissolve a clot and restore blood flow to the brain. But it must be given within the first few hours after symptoms start. While t-PA is not appropriate for people who have a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke, about 80 percent of strokes are caused by blood clots.

Anti-clotting medications and other blood thinners may also be given to people who have had an ischemic stroke, to help reduce the risk of another blood clot forming. Emergency surgery may also be done to open a blocked artery or repair a burst blood vessel.

The best thing to do if you or someone you know may be experiencing symptoms of stroke is to call 911 to get immediate medical attention.

Stroke: The Recovery Process

Stroke survivors often face an uphill battle when it comes to recovery. Fifty percent of stroke survivors end up with disabilities that prevent them from completely taking care of themselves and their daily needs.

Complications that may follow stroke include communication problems involving both language comprehension and speech. Stroke survivors may also experience paralysis on one or both sides of the body, as well as loss of control over their muscles. Swallowing may be difficult; memory problems and loss of memory are also common, as are pain and numbness throughout the body.

Stroke is a frightening condition to deal with. While you can’t control all of the risk factors, you can influence a great many of them. Keeping health conditions under control and focusing on following a healthy diet, not smoking, and getting plenty of regular exercise can help to decrease you likelihood of having a stroke.