Stroke Awareness: Understanding Your Risk Factors

May 18, 2021

Not sure if you are at risk for stroke? Here’s what you need to know: 

Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke. Despite being the nation’s leading cause of death, not everyone is familiar with their stroke risk factors. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more important than ever to keep an eye on your health, stroke risk profile, and any potential symptoms that may appear.

To understand more about who is at risk for stroke and what symptoms to look out for, we spoke with two Jefferson Health – New Jersey medical experts - Intensivist Dr. Joan Wiley and Emergency Medicine specialist Dr. David Shiller.

Common Risk Factors

Your likelihood of having a stroke is based on several factors, including family history, lifestyle, and pre-existing conditions. Some of the most common risk factors for stroke include, but are not limited to:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • History of smoking
  • Obesity
  • Advanced age (typically people over the age of 55)

While these risk factors are well-documented, a new one has emerged in the midst of the pandemic: COVID-19.

COVID-19-Related Changes in Stroke Risk Factors

People over 55 are usually considered high-risk stroke patients, but COVID-19 has caused much younger patients to come to the emergency room with stroke symptoms. “We’ve seen more patients who are younger—in their 40s and 50s—with minimal risk factors, coming into the ICU after suffering from a stroke due to COVID-19,” says Dr. Wiley. “We don’t have all the answers, but it seems COVID-19 is a new risk factor for stroke.”

“It’s important to know,” she adds, that “even if you’re younger, that this could happen to you.” Dr. Wiley stresses that if you experience any signs of weakness, or an inability to walk or speak normally, you need to go to your local emergency room right away: “The best stroke treatment is the one that happens immediately.”

Dr. Joan Wiley.                                                               Dr. David Shiller.

Time is Brain

You may have heard the saying “time is brain” regarding stroke treatment. If you think you might be having a stroke, it is important to seek treatment immediately—the nervous tissue in the brain is rapidly and irreversibly lost during a stroke. “There is a very limited time window in which the thrombolytic

drugs—used to treat strokes—can potentially make a difference,” says Dr. Shiller. “Ideally, for those drugs to work, you should be treated within three hours of symptom onset.” Seeking medical attention quickly also increases the likelihood that a neurosurgeon can treat you with mechanical thrombectomy—a surgery in which the stroke-causing clot is removed from the artery.

If you are at high risk for stroke, or have been diagnosed with COVID-19, keep an eye out for symptoms that include:

  • Sudden onset weakness in any extremity
  • Change or droop in your smile
  • Acute change in vision
  • Sudden dizziness
  • One-sided weakness in the body
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Significant numbness or tingling (also known as paresthesia)

“You may be tempted to try and manage your symptoms before seeing a doctor, but especially for those with existing risk factors—like family history, cardiovascular disease, or a positive COVID test—it’s important to seek immediate medical attention to rule out a stroke or be treated within the ideal time window,” says Dr. Shiller. “Visiting a state-designated Comprehensive Stroke Center, like the one at Jefferson Health – New Jersey, provides many advantages. These include having emergency physicians, nurses, neurologists, intensivists, hospitalists and neurosurgeons working together to coordinate the most advanced treatments in a timely fashion, to promote the best possible outcomes for patients.”

For more information on stroke and Neuroscience services offered at Jefferson Health - New Jersey, click HERE