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Getting to the Heart of Stroke Prevention


The following is a guest post by Janet Wright, MD, FACC, Executive Director of Million Heartsâ„¢, a national initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Most of us are familiar with what happens when someone has a heart attack-we see it in movies, on TV shows, and unfortunately sometimes it happens to our loved ones, colleagues, or neighbors. But what about a stroke? If you're not as familiar with what happens when someone has a stroke, you're not alone.

A stroke, sometimes called a brain attack, happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked. This can be caused by a blood clot or a burst blood vessel in or around the brain. When blood flow to the brain stops, brain cells start to die after just a few minutes. Brain cell damage can lead to an inability to move or feel body parts like the arms, legs, or face, and can impair speech, swallowing, and thinking. These deficits can be temporary, slowly get better over time with therapy, or remain permanently. Unfortunately some strokes are deadly.

In 2008 alone, more than 133,000 Americans died from stroke-one person every four minutes-making it the fourth leading cause of death. Stroke is also a major cause of disability in the United States. An estimated of 7 million US adults have had stroke, many of whom are entirely or partially dependent on others for daily activities like bathing, dressing, eating, or moving around.


The sooner a stroke is recognized and treated, the greater the chances of minimizing the damage. That's why it's so important to get the person medical treatment immediately. Call 9-1-1 immediately if you or a loved one has any of these symptoms:

  • sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg - especially on one side of the body.
  • sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Million Heartsâ„¢, a national initiative to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes in five years, is encouraging health experts of all kinds-doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dietitians, community health workers, and others-to talk to their patients about the ABCS of preventing stroke-and heart attacks:

  • taking Aspirin if your doctor or nurse recommends it,
  • controlling your Blood pressure,
  • managing your Cholesterol, and
  • quitting Smoking.

During May, National Stroke Awareness Month, we're working to be sure that everyone understands not only how to reduce or avoid the worst consequences of a stroke, but also how to prevent stroke.

I encourage you to ask your health care professional about how to reduce your risk for stroke. Know your optimal cholesterol levels and blood pressure and work with your health care team to get and stay there. Choosing foods low in sodium and trans fat can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce your risk of stroke. If you are a smoker, stop smoking. It's never too late and your risk can begin to drop immediately. Visit for more information on how to reduce your risks.

Biography: Janet Wright, MD, FACC, is the Executive Director of Million Heartsâ„¢, a national initiative of the Department of Health and Human Services to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes over five years. Dr. Wright practiced cardiology for 23 years before serving as VP of Science and Quality at the American College of Cardiology. 

Image credit: American Stroke Association.

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