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March 20, 2018  |  Login
by James F. Balch, M.D. and Mark Stengler, N.D.

Like all parts of the body, the brain needs a continuous supply of oxygen to function properly. When that oxygen supply is cut off, brain tissues begin to die within minutes, never to regenerate. This tissue death is what happens during a stroke. A stroke occurs when blood carrying oxygen and other nutrients to the brain is blocked or interrupted; the extent of the damage to the brain usually depends upon the length of the interruption and the speed with which treatment is received. As most of us know, strokes are extremely serious and often fatal. They are the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease and cancer.

An overwhelming percentage of strokes are caused by arteriosclerosis, a condition in which fatty deposits build up inside the arterial walls and obstruct blood flow. An artery leading to the brain may become so thick with plaque that the passage of blood is effectively blocked. The blood supply may also be shut off if a clot lodges itself in an artery that's already damaged and narrow. In a few cases, a cerebral blood vessel will actually rupture. High blood pressure is also a major predisposition to strokes, which damage the arteries and may cause a rupture; it, too, can often be ­ managed with proper diet, exercise, supplementation, and stress management (see the high blood pressure page).

Although we've been conditioned to think of strokes as tragic but unpreventable accidents that occur in old age, the truth is that arteriosclerosis is often a condition caused or made more probable by controllable lifestyle factors. Although arteries do tend to weaken, as we get older, poor diet and lack of exercise, along with uncontrolled stress, are reasons that plaque builds up in the arteries in the first place. Genetic cardiovascular risk factors also play a role for many people. See the cardiovascular disease page for a more in-depth discussion of these risk factors.

A few other factors also increase the risk for stroke. If you have an irregular ­ heartbeat or a damaged heart valve or have suffered a recent heart attack, you should be especially vigilant about your health and should be monitored regularly by a doctor. Women who take oral contraceptives and who smoke also have a greater chance of developing blood clots, as so women on certain types of synthetic hormone replacement.

If you have a stroke, you have a significantly greater chance of surviving and even fully recovering when you receive medical treatment within three hours after the symptoms begin-the earlier, the better. Call an ambulance or get to an emergency room immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms: weakness or numbness along one side of the body; difficulty talking or understanding speech; blurred vision; confusion; a sudden, intense headache; unexplained dizziness or loss of balance; or loss of consciousness. These symptoms may come on suddenly, within a matter of seconds or minutes, or they may develop over the course of a day or two. If you have arteriosclerosis or are over fifty, you should be aware of these stroke warning signs so that you know when to get help, should it ever be necessary.

It's difficult to say exactly what the consequences of a stroke will be. The damage largely depends upon which brain tissues are deprived of oxygen and how long the interruption of blood flow lasts. If the blood flow is suspended for only a few seconds, you may experience visual and speech problems, weakness, trembling, or confusion, but it's likely that you'll soon return to normal. People who survive longer periods of oxygen deprivation may suffer lasting damage to their vision, speech, coordination, or movement, although physical therapy may restore some or even total functioning.

Next: What are the Symptoms of a Stroke

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