The 2016 Chapman University Survey of American Fears gave me pause for reflection. Leading the list of what strikes fear into the more than 1,500 Americans surveyed was “corrupt government officials” (60.6% of respondents), followed by terrorist attacks (41%). Much farther down the list, only 20.3% reported “becoming seriously ill” as a cause for concern.
As a physician who spends her days caring for patients with strokes, or “brain attacks,” I wondered how many strokes we could avoid entirely if people feared brain attacks as much as they fear terrorist attacks. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 795,000 strokes occur in the United States each year. An individual’s lifetime odds of dying from a stroke are approximately 1 in 31, and stroke remains the fifth overall leading cause of death in our country. What are the lifetime odds of dying at the hands of a foreign born terrorist? According to the National Safety Council, only around 1 in 45,808.
A stroke is a permanent brain injury, resulting either from a blockage preventing blood from reaching part of the brain (ischemic stroke), or from bleeding occurring in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). While rehabilitation can assist with improving a stroke survivor’s ability to function, the injury to the brain is not reversible. Skin cells may regenerate within a wound, but cells in the brain do not. Common stroke symptoms include, but are not limited to, weakness on one side of the body, numbness on one side, sudden visual loss, slurred speech, drooping on one side of the face, and/or difficulty producing coherent words/sentences.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, a time during which amplified efforts take place to raise public recognition of the disabling and fatal impact that stroke brings. The good news is that most strokes are preventable, but this requires effort. Just because a patient feels well does not mean that high blood pressure should be ignored. Cigarette smoking is harmful to the brain and its blood supply, but quitting is tough and requires resolve. Diabetic patients with high blood sugar readings should take these seriously and work with their healthcare providers to bring these under control. High cholesterol measurements also warrant discussion between patients and providers.
There are three major educational points I wish to make during National Stroke Awareness Month, in hopes that we can join together to prevent strokes and the horrible aftermath they produce.
1. Atrial fibrillation is a type of irregular heart rhythm that can dramatically increase the risk for stroke. There are now a number of medications that can substantially lower the risk of stroke in these patients. If you have atrial fibrillation, it is critical that you discuss with your healthcare provider whether he or she recommends starting one of these medications.
2. Obstructive sleep apnea is another condition that places patients at higher risk for stroke, as well as many other disease processes that can also make a stroke more likely to occur. If you have obstructive sleep apnea, please work with your healthcare provider to find an effective way to control it. Your brain will appreciate it.
3. Stroke is not just a disease of the elderly. I frequently see patients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s presenting to the hospital with strokes. As frightening as it may seem, stroke also strikes during childhood. Tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA) is a medication that can help to dissolve blood clots when a stroke begins. Multiple studies have demonstrated that treatment with t-PA increases a patient’s chances of living independently three months after a stroke compared with those who do not receive t-PA. However, t-PA is only beneficial within the first 3 to 4.5 hours after a stroke begins, and every minute that passes decreases a patient’s chance of reaching that independent outcome. Regardless of age, when stroke symptoms start, the right call to make is 911. A person is never too young to have a stroke.
I remain much more fearful of having a stroke than I do of losing my life in a terrorist attack. Yes, national security is an important issue; however, as we battle threats that are much more likely to kill and disable Americans than terrorist attacks, let us place our fears where fear is warranted, and channel this energy into action.