Stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked or ruptures. The most common form of stroke is due to blockage of a blood vessel. Blood vessel blockage is caused by a condition known as
atherosclerosis, commonly known as “hardening of the arteries.” This is the most common type of stroke. Stroke is one of the three major leading causes of death in the United States. The other two are heart attack and cancer. Stroke is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. It is for this reason that it is much wiser to focus on stroke prevention in the first place rather than trying to limit the damage with stroke treatment after event has occurred. High blood pressure (hypertension) is the single biggest, treatable risk factor for stroke. In the 1970s, there was a push by the medical community to aggressively treat high blood pressure to lower the risk of stroke, premature heart disease and kidney failure. One cannot feel that their blood pressure is elevated but the damage to major body organs (heart, brain, kidneys) continues on. It is only when these organs start to fail or a stoke occurs, will it become apparent that a given individual may have hypertension. On occasion, patients with untreated hypertension may have headaches. Fortunately checking one’s own blood pressure is easy. This can be done at your doctor’s office, pharmacies or the local fire department. If you have high blood pressure with the top number greater than 150 or the lower number greater than 85, you need to see a physician for treatment. Fortunately there are many different types of medication to treat high blood pressure. Many patients can be successfully treated with a single drug, for mild hypertension. Individuals with moderate to more severe hypertension, multiple drug therapy may be necessary. With the aggressive push to treat high blood pressure, the rate of stroke in the United States has dropped dramatically over the past two decades. There is a class of blood pressure medication, the ACE inhibitors, that have been shown in well designed clinical studies to significantly reduce the risk of stroke independent of their ability to lower blood pressure. Current evidence based medicine strongly suggests that addition of an ACE inhibitor should be done in patients with high blood pressure, even if their blood pressure is adequately controlled on other agents. Ideal blood pressure range should be with the upper number (systolic) being less than 130 and the lower number (diastolic) less than 80.
It has been well known for several decades that aspirin thins out the blood. Cardiologists have used aspirin extensively for 30 years to lower the risk of having a heart attack. Aspirin slows down the formation of clots by blocking the clumping of platelets to form blood clots. In 1994 a hallmark study, the Antiplatelet Trialists’ Collaboration, was published demonstrating the clear benefit of aspirin in the prevention of stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIA, “mini strokes”.) In 1998, the FDA approved labeling of aspirin for the prevention of TIA and stroke. Dosage recommendations in the range of 81-325 mg daily should be used. Unfortunately aspirin does not entirely prevent stroke or TIA from occurring. Other blood thinning agents can be used in patients who fail aspirin therapy. The other two agents are Plavix and Aggrenox. Either agent can be used in patients who have had a TIA or stroke while taking aspirin. In patients who have no history of heart disease, Aggrenox is the preferred agent. Plavix is preferred in those patients who have known coronary artery disease.
Lastly, high cholesterol has been implicated in the development of accelerated atherosclerosis. There have been studies that have shown some correlation of high cholesterol with the increased risk of having a stroke. Multiple, double-blind, placebo controlled studies have shown that the use of cholesterol lowering statin drugs for cholesterol reduction results in an average of a 27% overall secondary risk decrease in stroke. Studies are ongoing to show if statins may help in primary prevention of stroke and TIA. At this time, it is prudent to be on a statin drug, for cholesterol reduction. The currently available statins include: Lipitor, Zocor, Pravachol, Crestor or Mevacor if you have a cholesterol over 200. The marked benefit of this class of drugs on the reduction of stroke and cardiac events (35%) is dramatic and strongly supports more aggressive treatment for high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia.) The objective is to have a total cholesterol less than 180, good cholesterol (HDL) of greater than 50 and bad cholesterol (LDL) less than 100. A recent study published in the journal Stroke reported that discontinuing statin therapy in the year after a stroke is associated with a significant increase in the risk for death, even in the absence of heart disease.
Medications are not the only treatment for stroke prevention. Smoking is associated with a 2-3 times greater risk of stroke and bleeding in the brain. Smoking also contributes to the accelerated development of heart disease, emphysema and peripheral artery disease. Chantix is a new medication that received FDA approval to help stop smoking. Exercise is important in maintaining overall body conditioning and weight control. This in turn leads to an overall lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol. In summary, stroke prevention is much easier and cost effective than fixing the problem after someone has a stroke. This approach to stroke reduces mortality and disability for the entire United States population. The cost saving are in the hundreds of billions of dollars over stroke treatment. If you feel that you are at risk for stroke, contact a neurologist for evaluation and treatment.