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Risks for Stroke

March 6, 2008

By Melanie McGrath

A stroke is a type of cardiovascular disease. It affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs, so it dies. A stroke is also referred to as a cerebrovascular accident or CVA[i].

The blockage of an artery in the brain by a clot is the most common cause of a stroke. The part of the brain that is supplied by the clotted blood vessel is then deprived of blood and oxygen. Typically, a clot is formed in a small blood vessel within the brain that has been previously narrowed due to the long term damaging effects of high blood pressure or diabetes.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a warning stroke or mini stroke that produces stroke like symptoms but no lasting damage. Recognizing and treating TIAs can reduce our risk of a major stroke. TIAs are important in predicting is a stroke will occur rather than when one will happen. TIAs occur when a blood clot temporarily clogs an artery and part of the brain doesn’t get the blood it needs. The symptoms occur rapidly and last a relatively short time. Unlike a stroke, when a TIA is over, there’s no injury to the brain[ii].

It is important to recognize the warning signs of a TIA or stroke. The usual TIA symptoms are the same of those of a stroke, including sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg especially on one side of the body, sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding, sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, sudden, severe headache with no known cause[iii].

When someone has shown symptoms of a stroke or a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) a doctor will gather information and make a diagnosis. The doctor will review the events that have occurred and will get a medical history, do a physical and neurological examination, have a blood test done, get a CT scan and study the results of other diagnostic tests that might be needed. Diagnostic examinations examine how the brain looks, works, and gets its blood supply. They can outline the injured brain area. Most of them are safe and painless.

To help recognize the symptoms of stroke quickly, The Stroke Association has funded research into FAST- the Face Arm Speech Test- that is used by paramedics to diagnose stroke prior to a person being admitted to hospital. The FAST test required an assessment of three specific symptoms of stroke. Things to test for includes facial weakness- can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped? Arm weakness- can the person raise both arms? Also check for Speech problems- can the person speak clearly and understand what you say? [iv].

Strokes are the third major cause of death among Hispanics-Americans and Native Americans, yet there is a scarcity of information, especially about strokes, in subgroups of these populations. High prevalence of diabetes, smoking, and obesity may contribute to stroke mortality in Native Americans[v].

Smoking damages the lining of the arteries and promotes plaque buildup. Plaque consists of fatty deposits like cholesterol that collect inside the arteries. Plaque can eventually clock the arteries and cut off the blood and oxygen supply to the heart or brain. Smoking also affects substances in the blood, such as protein, making the blood sticky and more likely to clot. Plaque buildup can lead to a clot in the carotid arteries in the neck which blocks the blood flow to the brain and causes a stroke[vi].

[i] Medicinenet.com (2008) “Stroke” http://www.medicinenet.com/stroke/article.htm
[ii] Mayoclinic.com (2008) “Transient Ischemic Attack” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/transient-ischemic-attack/DS00220
[iii] National Institute of Neurological disorders and stroke (2008) “Know Stroke. Know the Signs. Act in Time” http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/stroke/knowstroke.htm#symptoms
[iv] TheFamilyGP.com (2008) “FAST can help diagnose stroke victims” http://www.thefamilygp.com/fast-test-helps-diagnose-stroke.htm
[v] American Heart Association (2008) “Strokes in Asian and Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, and Native Americans” http://www.circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/83/4/1471
[vi] Boston Scientific (2005) “Health Benefits develop quickly after you quit smoking” http://www.bostonscientific.com/templatedata/imports/HTML/lifebeatonline/summer2005/learning.shtml



The Native American Community Board (NACB) works to protect the health and human rights of Indigenous Peoples pertinent to our communities through cultural preservation, education, coalition building, community organizing, reproductive justice, environmental justice, and natural resource protection while working toward safe communities for women and children at the local, national, and international level.

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