Stroke Prevention: The Risk Factor We Don’t Talk About

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As we age, our brain changes and we're at greater risk for stroke.

When Michael Angelakos felt what he describes as ‘a small burst’ in the back of his head followed by arm weakness and some speech slurring, he didn’t immediately recognize it was a stroke. “Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. I didn’t know what symptoms to look for,” he said.

Dr. Melvin Wichter, a neurologist at Advocate Christ Medical Center says it’s common for people experiencing a stroke not to identify it immediately. He says that while heart attacks and strokes are similar in that they’re both largely caused by blocked arteries, one key difference is that we tend to be better at recognizing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.

One simple way to recognize a stroke is to learn the acronym FAST.

“It stands for face, meaning a facial droop, arm weakness, or problems using an arm, speech slurring, or inability to get the words to the mouth, and one of the most important and ignored is the T,” he says.

The T is for time, meaning get to a hospital quickly and note what time the event happened, because knowledge of time of onset better equips doctors to be able to reverse stroke damage.

Dr. Wichter says there are several risk factors for stroke, “High blood pressure is probably number one. High cholesterol, lipids, inactivity, obesity, poor diabetic control, alcohol, and smoking.”

But there is one key risk factor that played a large role in Michael’s stroke, and Dr. Wichter says it’s often overlooked. “This probably one of the most important messages going forward, is he wasn’t taking his medication. Taking medicine that’s prescribed to you daily is absolutely the only way you’re going to prevent a stroke.”

This deviation from a prescription plan is an issue pharmacists see regularly with older adults, and can lead to a multitude of complications.

Rolla Sweis, Pharmacy Director at Advocate Christ Medical Center explains, “If there are heart conditions, if patients have diabetes, there are some medications like anti-coagulants that we use that help prevent stroke. If those are missed on a regular basis, they can worsen and they can predispose patients to what we’re protecting them from.”

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