Celebrity stroke cases raise awareness about leading cause of death, disability in the U.S.

When legendary actress Debbie Reynolds passed away just a day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died of a heart attack, the world mourned yet another beloved celebrity whose life was cut short by a stroke.

Reynolds’ stroke was the latest in a string of high-profile cases that have dominated headlines in recent weeks. Former Houston Texans Head Coach Gary Kubiak recently stepped down from his position leading the Denver Broncos just three years after he suffered a mini stroke during a game. Oil tycoon and renowned entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens disclosed this week that he spent time in a hospital last month recovering from the same condition.

In the United States alone, strokes claim a new victim every 40 seconds. Every four minutes, an American dies from a stroke-related complication. It’s a serious and deadly diagnosis, but also largely preventable.

A 2016 study published in The Lancet found that 90 percent of strokes worldwide were linked to controllable risk factors, including physical inactivity, poor diet, obesity and smoking, among other factors.

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“The healthcare industry has made great strides in treating strokes and improving recovery times, but this condition remains a leading cause of death and disability for Americans,” said Dr. Louise McCullough, co-director of the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center (MNI), chair of neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and a renowned expert in stroke prevention. “There are some risk factors for stroke that can’t be controlled. African-Americans face a higher risk than people of other ethnicities, and women are more likely to suffer a stroke in their lifetimes than men. But for a vast majority of cases, small lifestyle changes can help protect against a future stroke.”

For example, by simply eliminating high blood pressure, a patient’s stroke risk tumbles by nearly 48 percent, according to the research. Hypertension can be managed and treated by embracing a healthier diet, getting more regular exercise, quitting smoking and avoiding any secondhand smoke exposure, closely monitoring blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and taking any medications prescribed by a doctor.

“It’s never too early, or too late, to take charge of your health and help lessen your risk for a devastating stroke,” McCullough said.

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There are two types of strokes, each requiring dramatically different interventions. Hemorrhagic strokes occur when blood vessels burst, causing bleeding on the brain and potentially leading to severe consequences if not treated immediately.  Treatment can begin with medication to control and slow the bleeding, but if the rupture is more serious, it could require surgical interventions.

However, the majority of strokes, about 87 percent, are ischemic strokes, which are caused by a blockage in a blood vessel in the brain.

A clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) has long been the gold standard in treating these types of strokes, but in recent years, a new stroke treatment has emerged as a potential game-changer for patients. During the treatment – which is called an endovascular thrombectomy and is offered at select comprehensive stroke centers, including MNI – a neurosurgeon threads a device called a stent retriever through narrow blood vessels to fish out the clot from the brain. Studies have shown that patients treated with this procedure, combined with tPA treatment, have a better chance for a full recovery following a stroke.

“The results have been very promising and we are pleased with the remarkable outcomes our patients have experienced,” McCullough said.

Knowing your risks and the symptoms of a stroke can be lifesaving. Because strokes affect the brain, patients may not realize what’s happening, but the symptoms are distinct and sudden, including: numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg; dizziness and loss of balance; confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech; severe headaches; and blurred vision in one or both eyes.

If you believe someone is having a stroke, it’s important to get them help as quickly as possible. When deprived of oxygen, millions of brain cells can die every minute. The clot-dissolving agent tPA typically is effective if administered within three hours of symptom onset, and preferably within the first hour of symptom onset to prevent severe long-term damage, although the stent retriever can extend the time during which patients can receive effective stroke treatment.

REMEMBER F.A.S.T.

This acronym serves as a good reminder on how to spot the sudden signs of a stroke.

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To learn more about stroke prevention and care, visit Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute at the Texas Medical Center (MNI).

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