Happy World Stroke Day

I did a piece for NBC News today to spread stroke awareness. As a two time stroke survivor, I am extremely fortunate to be in the position to do so. Stroke is the #1 debilitator in the US, and the #5 cause of death. Every 40 seconds someone has a stroke.

Yet 75% of adults do not know what stroke is or how the symptoms present.

This is not surprising to me — most often when I talk about my stroke today it is met with ignorance or incredulity. “Isn’t that something with the heart?” or “But you’re so young, isn’t that your grandmother’s disease?” Or even “Can’t you put a spice under your tongue and it will go away?”

Before I had my first stroke in 2013, I might have asked the same; I was uneducated and unaware of its magnitude.

But I was forced to learn all about stroke very quickly then. And now even more after my second stroke this summer. The most confounding of my learnings is that stroke is increasing in young people, 50% in the last 25 years in people under the age of 45. Yet because we are uneducated about symptoms or are biased based on age, stroke is often overlooked in young people. I have heard too many stories in the news and from stroke peers about such a tragedy — by victims underestimating the symptoms and avoiding medical attention, as well as by medical professionals underdiagnosing a stroke as a migraine, or anxiety, or vertigo. With devastating consequences.

I share my story simply to educate —obliterate the age bias, educate about symptoms, and hopefully change the types of questions I receive.

Today, for World Stroke Day, I want you to understand three things: what a stroke is, what are the symptoms, and what you can do to prevent it.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is an attack on the brain that can happen to anyone at anytime. (In my opinion, it should be called a “brain attack.”) It occurs when blood flow to the brain is cut off, thereby depriving it of oxygen. Without oxygen, brain tissue dies. It only takes one minute without oxygen for the brain to die.

There are two types of strokes, hemorrhagic and ischemic. A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a brain hemorrhage, a leak or bursting of a cerebral blood vessel. An ischemic stroke is due to a clot in the blood that travels up to the head and gets stuck in a smaller vascular branch of the brain. Both block off normal flow of blood to the brain.

What are stroke symptoms?

Stroke symptoms vary depending on what part of the brain is under attack. This is because different parts of the brain control different body functions. My symptoms were immediate loss of control and feeling of my right arm. It fell limp at my side and I couldn’t move it. And when I tried to speak, my words were slurred gibberish. During my second stroke, I felt my face go numb. I could tell it was droopy and lifeless on one side. These are three parts of the FAST acronym for common stroke symptoms (Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech is slurred = TIME to seek medical attention). Other symptoms include dizziness, severe headache, changes to your vision such as loss of vision in one eye, loss of peripheral vision, or visual aura.

Symptoms are NOT to be overlooked. As I just explained, after one minute without oxygen, the brain starts to die. The longer it goes without oxygen, the more it dies. The adage is, “Time loss is brain loss.” And really, it’s loss of functionality, your ability to speak, walk, think — it’s loss of life as you know it. If you or someone you know experiences symptoms like these, get to the hospital immediately and do not leave without an MRI.

What are the causes of stroke?

The easy and obvious causes are smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, cardiovascular disease. These we can do our best to avoid.

The common causes of stroke in young people are harder to prevent, but it helps to be aware of them. One is a tear in one of the arteries that supplies blood to the head (my first diagnosis). I always recommend now to be careful of your neck — no chiropractic maneuvering, no hard massages to the neck, no headstands in yoga if you’re not a yogi, and no straining the neck at the washing station at the salon (this is known as “beauty parlor stroke”). Seriously, I have heard stories of terrible consequences caused by all of these, including death.

Another common cause is the PFO, patent foramen ovale, a hole in the heart (my second diagnosis). A clot in the blood can pass through the hole and travel to the brain to cause a stroke. While PFO is a common condition (25% of people have one), for most it does not present a problem. But we should all do our best to avoid blood clots — avoid being sedentary for too long, move your legs regularly or wear compression socks on long travel, and beware of birth control, as it is known to promote clots and is linked to stroke.

More stroke facts can be found at stroke.org. Thanks for helping me spread awareness by reading and sharing this post. You never know with life!