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AARP Bulletin

Are You Having a Stroke?

What you need to know to help yourself and others

Strokes are the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and a major cause of long-term disability, so knowing the symptoms is important.

Call 911 when one or more of these sudden symptoms occur:

  • Numbness or weakness of the limbs or face, especially on one side of the body
  • Facial paralysis (one side droops, drooling)
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Mental confusion
  • Vision problems
  • Dizziness, difficulty walking
  • Extremely painful headache

If you think someone is having a stroke:

  • Call 911
  • Do not give aspirin, which thins the blood. Without knowing which kind of stroke is occurring, taking aspirin could cause more damage, says Larry B. Goldstein, M.D., director of the Duke University Stroke Center in Durham, N.C.
  • Try to get the person to sit or lie down to prevent a fall
  • Check that the person's airways are clear
  • Do not give water or food — the stroke victim could choke
  • Write down when symptoms first appear to help the medical staff assess treatment

Reduce your stroke risk

Prevention does make a difference. There’s been a 40 percent decrease in the number of strokes in adults 65 and older in the last two decades, according to a recent study published in The American Journal of Medicine. Many risk factors for stroke are treatable, says Goldstein. "If you make these lifestyle changes, you reduce your stroke risk by 85 percent."

You're at higher risk for stroke if you:

  • Are African American
  • Are male
  • Have a close relative who had a stroke before age 65
  • Are older: Stroke risk doubles for every decade after age 50
  • Have already had a stroke. "You are at 10 times higher risk of having a stroke if you've already had one," says Goldstein.

Beth Levine is a freelance writer who lives in Stamford, Conn.

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