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Don’t let holidays eclipse health awareness

Published: Friday, Dec. 21, 2012 12:26 p.m. CDT

The holidays are a time for family gatherings and celebration.  But the flip side is that this time of year features the highest number of heart attacks and other cardiac-related emergencies, such as stroke. 

There isn’t a definitive reason why, but the general thought is that people are more likely to disregard symptoms and put off getting assistance.

In the case of strokes, such delays can not only mean the difference between life and death, but between quality of life and life-long disability. 

Stroke is the No. 4 cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the United States.  It attacks about 795,000 Americans each year and kills more than 137,000 of them. 

That is why it is vital that, no matter what day of the year, every one of us knows the signs of stroke and what to do if they appear.

Stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of vital oxygen and nutrients. When that happens, brain tissue begins to die off within minutes. 

This is especially problematic because brain cells do not behave in the same way as many other cells in the human body. Rather than regenerating after an injury, brain cells aren’t replaced. 

A person loses whatever dies off.

The human brain oversees a many functions in the body. If a portion of brain that controls a particular body function becomes oxygen-deprived, the resulting damage means that body part will no longer move or behave as it originally did. The results of a stroke vary depending upon the segment of the brain affected, as well as the quantity of tissue damaged.

While a stroke is possible in individuals of any age, ethnicity or gender, there are certain risk factors that make a person much more likely to suffer a stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and tobacco use, alcohol use, obesity, physical inactivity and circulation problems. By controlling these and other factors, research suggests that up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable.

Another important piece in the battle against stroke-related death and disability is knowing what to do when a stroke is already occurring.  In health care, time is brain.  The sooner you recognize the warning signs of a possible stroke and seek emergency care, the quicker interventions can be applied, thereby halting or slowing the damage.

The American Stroke Association suggests “F.A.S.T.” as a memory device of what to look for and what to do:

• Face drooping — Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.

• Arm weakness — Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

• Speech difficulty — Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?

• Time to call 911 — If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately.

Time is such a critical factor thanks to a newer set of medications called thrombolytics (sometimes referred to as “clot-busting” drugs). Thrombolytics can dissolve a clot and help restore blood flow to the deprived portion of the brain. This powerful intervention has been shown to make a significant difference in the outcome of someone suffering a stroke, but there is a caveat: It needs to be given within four and a half hours of the start of the stroke.  Outside of that window of opportunity, brain cells are permanently damaged or dead.  That is why it is so imperative that you not ignore the signs indicated above.

So this holiday season, in addition to treasuring your loved ones, don’t forget to treasure your own health.  No party, no dinner, no gathering is so important that you cannot step away to get checked out if you fear something is wrong.  We want to make sure you’re here to celebrate next year’s holidays, too.

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