Stroke: Key Q&A

What is a stroke?

A stroke is a life-threatening event in which part of the brain is deprived of adequate oxygen. A stroke can cause oxygen-starved brain cells to die within minutes, and damage can continue for several days afterward. The condition must be treated immediately. A stroke is also known as a cerebrovascular accident or a "brain attack."

How dangerous is a stroke?

Strokes are extremely dangerous, accounting for more than 160,000 deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer. It is also a leading cause of adult disability and institutionalization. Each year, about 700,000 people suffer strokes. Of those, 500,000 are first-time strokes.

Are all strokes the same?

No. There are two kinds of strokes. An ischemic stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted, usually by a blood clot. These clots may be caused by "hardening of the arteries" in the carotid arteries, which feed the head and brain with oxygen-rich blood. The second kind of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when there is bleeding into or around the brain. Strokes can also have a variety of severities.

What is the difference between a "mini-stroke" and a "little stroke?"

A transient ischemic attack or "mini-stroke" is different from a "little stroke." A mini-stroke tends to produce transient symptoms of stroke without causing permanent damage because the oxygen flow to the brain is only temporarily interrupted. Whereas, a little stroke will cause permanent damage, but only in a very small part of the brain.

After a "little stroke," people may not notice any changes in their own functioning. However, friends and family members may notice slight changes. For example, people who were very particular about their personal appearance may suddenly start paying less attention to it. There may be short memory lapses and slight alterations in speech. The effects of many little strokes can add up over time, such that people may eventually be diagnosed with a type of mental confusion called dementia.

Does a stroke affect men and women the same way?

No. Although strokes occur with roughly equal frequency in both men and women, women are more likely to have a stroke at a younger age, such as in their 40s or 50s, and to die from stroke. Female victims account for more than 60 percent of the annual deaths due to stroke, making strokes the second leading cause of death among American women.

Does race affect the risk of having a stroke?

Yes. Research finds that the risk for a first stroke in African Americans is approximately twice that of white Americans. The reason may be that African Americans have more risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and - particularly dangerous in African American women - poor dietary habits and lack of exercise.

A genetic cause has also been suggested. Until researchers have fully understood the risks, African Americans are urged to learn everything they can about the risk factors, symptoms, diagnostic tests and treatments associated with strokes.

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