We’ve all heard the phrase “serious as a heart attack.” Well, a stroke is no joke either. Sometimes called a “brain attack,” a stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is cut off, typically due to a blood clot blocking an artery. Once the arterial passage way is completely closed, a clock starts ticking. At that point, brain cells are deprived of the oxygen and the glucose they need to survive, and you have about four minutes until cells start to die. If you don’t get help fast, you can suffer permanent brain damage. Or it could be deadly.

Sometimes it begins with an excruciating pain behind your eyeballs. Or maybe with an extra-strength migraine. Your head feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise. Eyes won’t focus. Everything is blurry.

This is what it feels like when you’re having a stroke.

Understanding stroke and its causes and symptoms is vital to improving the health of the nation. It’s the third leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability for all Americans. But African Americans are disproportionately afflicted by stroke. Blacks are twice as likely as other ethnic groups to have a stroke, and they have a higher death rate from it due to increased risk factors like family history, diabetes and high blood pressure.

And while the statistics are harsh, a stroke can be prevented. That’s the message Cicely Tyson wants to send by teaming up with the American Stroke Association. As the spokesperson leading the campaign, Power To End Stroke, the indomitable stage and screen legend is passionate about improving health and promoting wellness.

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She believes that in order to thrive mentally and physically, you must care for your body. As a health advocate, she’s made it her mission to teach people how to recognize symptoms of stroke and promotes lifestyle changes to prevent people from becoming stroke victims.

“In my work traveling and speaking with people, I found that so many of us didn’t understand the impact of our unhealthy lifestyle. We need to dedicate ourselves to practicing good self care like eating right and getting regular checkups to lower our risk for stroke. And not just for ourselves. Stroke effects more than the person afflicted, it also has a devastating effect on their family and our community.”

Know Your Numbers To Lower Your Risk Factors

When it comes to risk factors, there are things that we can’t change like genetics and heredity. But there are things that we can do to reverse the trend. The No. 1 controllable factor is high blood pressure, one of leading cause of stroke. High blood pressure is another area in which African Americans top the statistical charts; 40 percent of African Americans have been diagnosed with hypertension.

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Unfortunately, having “pressure,” along with “a little sugar” has become almost commonplace in our community. But we can’t continue to be complacent about these conditions. Hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol are the Big, Bad Three conditions that greatly increase the risk for stroke and heart disease. It is important to know your numbers by getting an annual physical with blood tests. According to Dr. Rani Whitfield, “Tha Hip-Hop Doc,” we wait too long to see a doctor.

“Chronic issues can worsen over time like the build up of cholesterol and elevated blood pressure. When diagnosed early, these problems can be more easily treated with medication and lifestyle changes so they don’t become severe, life-threatening conditions. The key is to get regular checkups. I want to have a partnership with my patients, so we can work together to eliminate risks,” he said.

“But that means you can’t be afraid of the doctor. You have to come see me because what you don’t know can hurt you.”

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Move It And Lose It 

Another major key to prevention is getting regular exercise and taking off the extra pounds. Dr. Whitfield advocates exercising at least 30 minutes for five days a week for heart health. Exercise helps reduce blood pressure by making the heart stronger and more effective at pumping blood throughout the body. Take a tip from Cicely Tyson, who literally walks the walk when it comes to exercise.

“In New York, I walk everywhere, and if I can’t get outside, I walk on the treadmill,” she said. “I do something almost every day, and if I skip a day my body misses the exercise. And I definitely know my numbers. My daughter says she doesn’t have to worry about me because if I so much as sneeze, I’m making an appointment to see my doctor.”

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But unlike Tyson, many people don’t pay attention to unusual symptoms, and they ignore warning signs. Symptoms of stroke are:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the 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.

Before a full-blown episode, many people experience a TIA (transient ischemic attack) which is a “mini-stroke” or “warning stroke.” TIAs occur when a blood clot temporarily clogs an artery and part of the brain doesn’t get the blood it needs. The warning signs are the same for strokes, but they occur and disappear relatively quickly, usually in less than five minutes. TIAs can happen days, weeks or even months before a major stroke. But if you experience these symptoms, get yourself checked out because next time, you might not be so lucky.

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Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.