Strokes are a frightening topic, in part because the risk increases as we age.

They are caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain. Usually a blood clot blocks the flow of oxygen triggering a stroke, but bleeding in the brain can also result in a stroke.

In the United States, nearly 800,000 strokes each year result in 130,000 deaths. Stroke survivors often have long-term disabilities with speech, movement and memory.

Lifestyle changes can help decrease the chance of having a stroke.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the most common risk factor for stroke. Other risk factors include irregular heartbeat, cigarette smoking, physical inactivity, increased cholesterol in the blood, diabetes and kidney disease. Strokes are more common among the elderly, African-Americans and Native Americans.

Here are some other ways to reduce your risk:

  • If you are overweight, work to drop your weight by even 10 pounds.
  • Limit sodium, or salt, in your diet to 1,500 mg daily.
  • Eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruit a day.
  • Limit saturated fat and cholesterol in your food.
  • Get 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
  • Work with a medical provider to keep your blood pressure near normal.
  • Stop smoking.
  • If you have diabetes, work with your medical provider to keep your blood sugar under control.

If a stroke does occur, recognizing it early and treating it promptly can drastically improve the odds of survival and decrease the harm caused by a stroke. The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association both encourage patients to remember the mnemonic FAST for a quick and easy way to recognize if someone is having a stroke. FAST stands for:

  • F = Facial Drooping. Ask the person to smile. Are the corners of the mouth uneven?
  • A = Arm Weakness. Ask the person to raise their arms. Is one arm significantly weaker?
  • S = Speech Difficulty. Ask them to repeat a phrase. Is their speech more slurred or difficult to understand than normal?
  • T = Then call 911

Anyone can use these steps. If symptoms are found, call 911 for immediate medical attention. Calling for help too soon is better than waiting until it’s too late. With strokes, waiting longer for treatment results in more brain tissue dying. FAST action may limit damage or prevent death.

Hospital staff will rapidly assess if it’s likely a stroke has occurred and quickly initiate the best interventions. They will want to know how long patients have been affected, their specific symptoms, their medical history and what medicines they are taking. Patients may also get blood drawn, an ECG, CT scans, MRIs or ultrasounds of the chest and neck. Some patients will get a very effective clot busting drug called tPA, which can only be given within the first three or four hours after a stroke.

Limiting the risk of stroke is important, but aging ultimately increases everyone’s risk of stroke. Remember the FAST (Face, Arm, Speech, Time to call 911) mnemonic. Call 911 if you see stroke signs, so lifesaving treatments can start quickly.

Dr. Stephen Bertucci, a resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247.3306.