What if, in the blink of an eye, half of your brain stopped working properly? That’s essentially what happens when you suffer from a stroke. Experiencing a stroke is one of the most terrifying of medical emergencies—and, according to the American Stroke Association, it happens to someone in the U.S. every 40 seconds. What’s more, stroke kills someone about every 4 minutes. But it’s not just that a stroke can kill you. The frightening possibility for millions of Americans is that it won’t. Instead, it can leave you unable to talk, walk, or function, making it the leading cause of permanent disability in America.
A stroke is really more like a brain attack. It occurs either when the blood supply to part of the brain is suddenly interrupted due to the presence of a blood clot (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts (hemorrhagic stroke). Brain cells begin to die after just four minutes without blood and oxygen. If the blood supply isn’t restored, permanent damage is likely to occur.
When stroke symptoms occur, quick action is vital. Warning signs can begin anywhere from a few minutes to days before a stroke and can be vague (the feeling that something’s just not right) to pronounced. If you think you or someone with you is having a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA), seek immediate medical attention.
Since the 1980s, hospitals have developed rapid, safe, and effective diagnostic techniques that accurately identify the extent and location of a stroke and the nature of the vascular problem causing it. The goal of treatment is to restore blood circulation before brain tissue dies. The time frame for reaching this goal is frighteningly slim. Treatment usually has to begin within 60 minutes of a stroke to prevent brain cell death that is significant enough to cause disability.
Even if you aren’t knowingly at risk, it’s smart to become familiar with the symptoms that can herald a stroke. If you experience any of the following symptoms, call 911 immediately or go to an emergency room.
- Weakness in an arm, hand, or leg.
- Numbness on one side of the body.
- Sudden dimness or loss of vision, particularly in one eye.
- Sudden difficulty speaking.
- Inability to understand what someone is saying.
- Dizziness or loss of balance
- Sudden, excruciating headache.
Your risk of stroke increases with each birthday, a factor over which you have no control. In fact, the American Stroke Association notes that the likelihood of having a stroke nearly doubles every 10 years after age 55. But Harvard researchers have found five alterable lifestyle factors that can significantly reduce that risk. They combined the findings of 43,685 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and 71,243 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, which both tracked diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake, and body mass index (BMI) over time, and discovered that the risk of having a stroke varied greatly depending on these critical factors:
- Diet: People who ate an unhealthful diet on a long-term basis were 10 to 33 percent more likely to suffer a stroke.
- Alcohol Consumption: The study participants who drank small amounts of alcohol were 16 to 23 percent less likely to have a stroke than those who didn’t drink at all. But this isn’t license to drink all you want. The researchers also found that those who drank the most (two drinks or more per day) had a 39 to 41 percent greater risk compared to teetotalers.
- Exercise: The subjects who weren’t physically active were 66 to 76 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than those who exercised at least six hours a week.
- Weight: Being overweight (as measured by BMI) was also found to be risky. People with a BMI greater than 32 were 72 percent more likely to have a stroke than those with a healthy BMI that fell below 25.
- Smoking: This one is a no-brainer. Participants who smoked more than a pack a day were at greatest risk for stroke—almost two-and-a-half times the risk—than those who never smoked.
Unlike your age, every single one of these risk factors is under your control. And, since at least half of all strokes can be prevented by making these healthy lifestyle changes, it’s important to eat a whole-foods diet, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, and drink in moderation.
A Supplemental Safety Net
While there’s no magic bullet that can prevent a stroke, combining a healthy lifestyle with targeted nutrients can significantly reduce your risk.
Mesoglycan is a glycosaminoglycan (GAG) compound that supports the structural integrity of blood vessels and promotes healthy circulation. GAGs are the natural building blocks of blood vessels and are essential to a healthy endothelium—the cells that line the interior wall of blood vessels. Mesoglycan also reduces fibrinogen levels. Fibrinogen is a protein produced in the liver that’s involved with blood clotting, and high levels are a risk factor for stroke. During a clinical trial that appeared in the journal Current Therapeutic Research, 30 patients with a history of stroke were given 50 mg of supplemental mesoglycan twice a day. After seven days of treatment, the researchers noted a significant decrease in fibrinogen levels.
In another trial, Italian researchers compared mesoglycan to the antiplatelet drug ticlopidine in a group of people who had experienced an ischemic stroke. The study showed that, while mesoglycan wasn’t quite as aggressive as the pharmaceutical at decreasing fibrinogen levels, it didn’t interfere with other blood clotting factors. What’s more, there were no side effects in the group taking the supplement. Other research pitting mesoglycan against aspirin found that both worked equally well to help prevent another stroke in survivors.
French Grape Seed Extract is another nutrient that can help prevent a stroke thanks to its antioxidant power. Since oxidative stress is an underlying cause of ischemic stroke, neutralizing free radicals may help reduce the extent of damage to brain cells. This was recently shown in findings that appeared in the International Journal of Stroke. Pre-treating test animals with grape seed extract prevented most strokes by reducing oxidative stress and preventing the depletion of copper, zinc, and manganese in the brain. Other research reports that grape seed extract significantly lowers malondialdehyde levels—a marker for oxidative stress—while promoting the formation of new blood vessels in the brain and activating the body’s supply of glutathione. Because grape seed extract works differently than mesoglycan, pairing the two supplements is an excellent move.
The secret to French grape seed extract’s efficacy is a powerful class of antioxidants known as oligomeric proanthocyanidin complexes (OPCs). Not only do OPCs reduce free-radical damage more effectively than vitamin E, they support healthy blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain. However, the problem with many grape seed extract supplements is that they contain large OPC molecules known as tannins. These tannins are too big to be absorbed by the body. Fortunately, you can maximize the absorption of your supplement by choosing a tannin-free French grape seed extract that provides low-molecular-weight OPCs.
Taking steps now, especially if you are at an increased risk, can protect you from a future stroke. And if you’ve already had a TIA or minor stroke, these strategies may prevent another, potentially life-changing stroke.
Know Your Risk
Non-Modifiable Risk Factors:
- Increases every decade after age 55.
- Women are more likely to die from stroke.
- Stroke occurs more often in African Americans and Native Americans.
- Personal or family history. If you’ve had a stroke, you’re at higher risk for another one. A TIA also increases your risk of having a stroke, as does having a family history of stroke.
Medical Risk Factors:
- Cardiovascular disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Type 2 diabetes.
Lifestyle Risk Factors:
- Alcohol overindulgence.
- Being overweight or obese.
- Lack of physical activity.
- NSAID use (except aspirin).
- Poor diet high in processed foods, sugar, and salt.
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels.
Can You Have a Silent Stroke?
Could you have a stroke and not even know it? A silent stroke may not have classic symptoms, but it can still cause permanent damage to the brain. In fact, a study of middle-aged people with no apparent signs of stroke found that about 10 percent had brain damage from one.
Surprisingly, silent strokes are more common than you might think. The Framingham Heart Study suggests that 1 in 10 people over the age of 62 have had a silent stroke. If you’ve had more than one silent stroke, you may have cognitive and memory problems. They can also lead to more severe strokes.
If you have a silent stroke, you probably won’t know it unless you happen to have a brain scan and the damage shows up. However, if you suddenly begin to have slight memory problems or a little difficulty getting around, check with your doctor. He or she may be able to see signs of silent strokes without testing.