5 things you need to know about strokes

October 2023

Every year, approximately 878,500 Canadians suffer a stroke, yet 39% of Canadians don’t know enough about strokes to spot the signs and symptoms. Strokes can cause death and long-term disabilities, so they must be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. 

There is a lot to know about strokes, and everything you learn can help you identify a stroke if it happens to someone you know.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when something blocks the blood supply to part of the brain or a blood vessel bursts inside the brain. This causes blood to stop flowing to a part—or parts—of your brain, which damages the brain cells and can cause lasting damage, disability, or death. The effects of a stroke are unique to where in the brain the damage happened and the amount of damage. 

The most common outcomes of a stroke include impaired speech, weakness or partial paralysis, restricted physical movement, and a slowed ability to communicate.

Let’s look at five things that will help you better understand strokes.

1. There are three main types of strokes

As mentioned above, the effects of a stroke are dependent on the part of the brain that was damaged and the amount of damage that occurred. But it also depends on what kind of stroke you have. There are three types of strokes.

Ischemic stroke

An ischemic stroke is caused by a blockage or clot in a blood vessel in your brain, preventing brain tissue from getting oxygen and nutrients. These blockages and blood clots typically form in arteries that have been narrowed or completely blocked due to plaque building up on the inside wall of an artery. 

Hemorrhagic stroke

A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when an artery or blood vessel in the brain breaks open and causes bleeding. The interrupted blood flow that is caused by the bleeding damages your brain. High blood pressure is a major cause of hemorrhagic stroke as it weakens your arteries over time. Hemorrhagic stroke is associated with severe morbidity and increased mortality.

Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

Sometimes called a mini-stroke, a transient ischemic attack (TIA) is caused by a small clot or blockage that briefly blocks an artery. The symptoms of TIA are the same as a stroke but usually last less than an hour and, in some cases, only last a few minutes. While the symptoms may be brief, TIAs are an important warning sign—they signal that a stroke may occur soon, and it is essential to call 911 immediately.

2. To recognize a stroke, you need to be FAST

While there are many symptoms of a stroke—including severe headache, sudden trouble walking or seeing, and sudden confusion—the acronym FAST is used to help you remember the most common signs of a stroke.

Remember, if these symptoms occur, they are more likely caused by a stroke than any other condition.

  • FACE — is it drooping?
  • ARMS — can you raise them both?
  • SPEECH — is it slurred or jumbled?
  • TIME — it’s time to call 911 immediately.

3. Women experience strokes differently—and more severely—than men

First and foremost, women are disproportionately affected by strokes—more women die of stroke, have worse outcomes after a stroke, and face more challenges as they recover. 

An array of risk factors affect women but do not affect men. For example, when women are pregnant or going through menopause, they are at an increased risk of stroke. 

Also female anatomy itself puts women at greater risk. Women tend to have smaller hearts and smaller arteries than men, and plaque accumulates in these vessels in different ways compared to men.

Additionally, oral contraception and hormone replacement therapy increase stroke risk. Certain gender-affirming hormone therapies put trans women at an increased risk for blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke. 

Atrial fibrillation—a type of abnormal heartbeat—is a significant risk factor for stroke, and the risk of developing Afib increases as you age. Because women live longer than men, more women are living with Afib. Additionally, women who experience Afib-related stroke are more likely to die than men and have more challenges and poorer quality of life. 

4. Know the risk factors and protect yourself

There are risk factors that are associated with stroke. Knowing your risk factors can help you protect yourself. A lot of the risk factors are lifestyle choices which means you have the power to change your lifestyle for the better.

The strongest risk factor associated with stroke is high blood pressure—be sure to have your yearly checkup to ensure your blood pressure is within a healthy range. 

Other risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Atrial fibrillation 
  • A sedentary lifestyle
  • A diet low in fruits and ​​​​​​​​vegetables

Living a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, and avoids smoking and drinking too much alcohol is your best defense against a stroke. 

5. Anyone can be affected by a stroke

While you might think that strokes are reserved for older adults, anyone can have one. Indeed, your risk of stroke rises rapidly after age 55. But 25% of Canadians living with a stroke are under 65, and even children can be affected.  

It’s important to know the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of stroke. Knowledge is truly power when protecting yourself and those around you.

Please always check with a medical professional to ensure these strategies are right for you.

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