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Originally published: 2013-05-15 16:38:05
Last modified: 2013-05-15 16:38:03

May is National Stroke Awareness Month

by Sherrie Norris

Every 20 minutes, someone in North Carolina is hospitalized because of a stroke. That equals 72 people each day statewide who suffer from a brain attack -- an often debilitating and fatal condition that medical officials say can be prevented with proper diet, exercise and blood pressure control. 

Annually, 795,000 Americans suffer a new or recurrent stroke, and almost 20 percent of those result in death, making stroke the nation's fourth leading cause of death and the leading cause of long-term disability, according to the area's first Joint Commission certified Primary Stroke Center at Watauga Medical Center.

North Carolina has the nation's eighth highest stroke death rate, which is 14 percent higher than the country's rate. In 2011, approximately 4,290 North Carolinians died from stroke, making it the state's fourth leading cause of death in men behind cancer, heart disease, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. It is the third leading cause of death among women in the state. 

Those numbers become even more relevant in May, National Stroke Awareness Month, and a time to raise awareness about the cardiovascular disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain, said Debbie Shook, the local center's coordinator.

A stroke is a "brain attack" that occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery or a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. Brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs, and abilities controlled by that area of the brain including speech, movement and memory are lost or diminished. 

But how a stroke patient is affected depends on where the stroke occurs in the brain and how much the brain is damaged, Shook said.

In 2012, 140 patients were treated at WMC's Stroke Center with stroke or symptoms of transient ischemic attacks (mini-strokes), Shook said. 

"This includes patients who were admitted to the hospital, transferred to tertiary (specialty) care facilities, or were seen in the emergency department and discharged without being admitted," she said. 

Immediate treatment is vital and can prevent disability -- and increase a person's chances of survival, Shook said.

She said people should think "FAST" if they suspect that they or someone else might be having a stroke: 

Face - Does one side of the face droop?

Arms - Is one arm weak or numb?

Speech - Is the person's speech slurred?

Time - If the answer is yes to any of these, call 911.

And thinking "FAST" can be even more important depending on where you live.

The eastern, coastal counties of North Carolina, along with those in South Carolina and Georgia, are considered part of the "stroke belt and buckle," which are areas of the country known for having an unusually high rate of cardiovascular diseases.

The "stroke buckle," in particular, has a stroke incidence rate that is nearly twice as high as the national average.

Historically, black people have higher stroke death rates than white people, and they are also more likely to die from a stroke at a younger age than their white counterparts. 

While stroke death rates in the state are higher among men in the 45-84 year age group, the total number of stroke deaths for all age groups each year is higher among women. Although there are innate risk factors for stroke, 80 percent of strokes are preventable by making lifestyle changes.