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Preventing stroke starts with awareness

February is probably most closely associated with Valentine’s Day. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s hard to escape the images of pink and red hearts the entire month conjures up for us. This is appropriate, for February is also Heart Disease Awareness Month.

Sometimes referred to as cardiovascular disease, the term heart disease can be used to describe a range of troublesome heart conditions. Many can be prevented or treated by — you guessed it — making healthy lifestyle choices.

This is true even for strokes, notorious for the lasting damage they can cause. A stroke is not considered heart disease, but is instead an outcome of heart disease. The National Stroke Association asserts that “Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in America, and a leading cause of serious, longterm, adult disability.”

This is frightening, but take heart — they also say that up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable.

What is a stroke?

We suffer a stroke when a blood clot creates a blockage in one of our blood vessels responsible for carrying blood from our heart to our body, or when the blood vessel itself breaks, interrupting the flow of blood to our brain.

The vast majority of strokes are caused by clots (ischemic stroke). Strokes caused by breakage (hemorrhagic stroke) are far less common but more dangerous, accounting for more than 30 percent of all stroke deaths. In either case, the brain is prevented from receiving the bloodflow that it needs to survive. Once that bloodflow becomes interrupted, brain cells begin to die, and brain damage occurs. The extent and permanency of that damage is variable.

Stokes can happen to any one of us, young or old, male or female. A notable high-risk group is African Americans, who face significantly greater risk than Caucasians. Other risk factors include being over the age of 55, having diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or having a family history of stroke.

Stroke warning signs

To recognize the warning signs of a stroke, many experts recommend using the using the acronym FAST — referring to face, arms, speech and time.

First is look at the face. Can the person smile? Do they have droopiness on one side? Next look at their arms. When lifting their arms does one arm drift downward? Listen for any speech changes such as slurring or inability to speak a simple sentence. Finally, time is important. If you see any of these changes, call 911 immediately.

Prevention

There are several controllable risk factors that we can focus on to help prevent a stroke. This includes not smoking, keeping cholesterol levels down, exercising regularly and managing your diet. Not surprisingly, you’ve seen these before. Yes, the usual suspects. In this age of “information overload,” it’s easy to become numb to the messages we see repeatedly, but this list is worth paying attention to.

Pick one thing and take steps to get your arms around it. Even the longest journey starts with one step, so start where you are, and take the first step.

The Hampshire Regional YMCA offers a variety of classes and groups to support your healthy lifestyle choices. Not ready for a commitment? It’s OK. Jump on the website at hrymca.org, drop by in person, make an inquiry. From classes like Break Free from Dieting, to our Couch to 5K Program; from swimming to Qi Gong; the Y has something for all levels.

The HRYMCA is located at 286 Prospect St., Northampton. For questions or comments contact healthyliving@hrymca.org.

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