Dr. Smolens: How to Identify the Warning Signs of Stroke Before It’s Too Late

Dr. Iva Smolens

Approximately every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a stroke.

Stroke —a condition that impacts the arteries leading to and within the brain—is a leading cause of disability in the country and the No. 5 cause of death.

It is important to learn the risk factors associated with stroke, along with warning signs and prevention tips, particularly during American Stroke Month in May.

Types of Stroke

An ischemic stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked either by clot or embolic material, and a hemorrhagic stroke is caused by bleeding into the brain tissue as a result of a blood vessel rupturing. When these types of stroke occur, brain cells are deprived of blood and oxygen, and nerve cells stop working as a result.

This affects the part of the body that is being controlled by the injured part of the brain. Depending on various factors, such as how many cells were involved and where they are located in the brain, the effects of the stroke can be permanent.

A transient ischemic attack, also known as TIA or “mini stroke,” may occur as a warning sign before a major stroke and, even though they last only a few minutes, TIAs have the same symptoms of a stroke. If signs of a TIA are visible, get help immediately.

Risk Factors for Stroke

The risk factors for stroke and heart disease are similar. High blood pressure is the leading risk factor for stroke. Additional risk factors include smoking, alcohol, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and inactivity.

Some risk factors cannot be controlled, but it’s important to be mindful of them when being proactive about your health. For instance:

  • Family: a history of stroke in a first-degree relative increases the odds of stroke by about 50 percent
  • Race: studies show African-Americans have a much higher risk of death from a stroke than Caucasians do
  • Your sex (gender): women have more strokes than men annually
  • Age: the probability of having a stroke nearly doubles every 10 years after someone reaches the age of 55
    Stroke Warning Signs

A stroke can occur at any moment. Knowing the symptoms and acting fast can help save lives.

A victim may have some, but not all, of the signs listed below. Even if one sign is present, it’s imperative to get help or head to the hospital immediately. These warning signs include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the leg, arm or face
  • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding, or trouble speaking
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

F.A.S.T. is acronym that will help you identify a stroke and remember what to do next. It stands for Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech Difficulty, Time to act immediately and call 9-1-1.

Stroke victims need to receive emergency attention as soon as possible. If you suspect someone is having a stroke, don’t wait. Call 9-1-1 or the emergency response number in your area.


By making simple lifestyle changes, you can help prevent a stroke. They include:

  • Measuring your blood pressure and understanding what your numbers mean
  • Maintaining a healthy diet and eating foods like vegetables, fruits, fish, and whole grains
  • Managing your cholesterol
  • Being physically active
  • Don’t smoke
  • Controlling your blood sugar if diabetic
  • Maintaining a healthy weight and Body Mass Index (BMI)
  • For more information about stroke and cardiovascular disease, visit heart.org.

About the Author:

Dr. Iva Smolens is a board-certified Cardiothoracic Surgeon and she graduated from the SUNY Downstate Medical Center College of Medicine. She is also an American Heart Association volunteer and is passionate about raising awareness about heart health and fundraising initiatives, such as Heart Ball—one of the leading American Heart Association fundraising events both locally and across the nation.

The 59th Annual Phoenix Heart Ball will take place on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018 at The Phoenician Resort. This year’s theme is Driven Hearts. For decades this event has raised over 33 million dollars to fund live-saving research and provide education on heart disease and stroke prevention. It has also funded the local Halle Heart Children’s Museum and the CPR in our Schools program. For more information, visit phoenixheartball.heart.org.

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