A stroke happens suddenly, and can change a person’s life forever. Most strokes are caused by a blockage in the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. Strokes can also happen when the blood vessels in the brain break open.

When strokes happen, the groups of brain cells in the territory of damaged blood vessels quickly die. However, there are groups of brain cells in the neighborhood which may still be viable but vulnerable, and also potentially salvageable.

Within the first hour of an untreated stroke, the victim loses millions of brain cells which are equivalent to 3.5 years of normal aging. Therefore, it is critical to get medical attention as soon as possible when you develop stroke symptoms.

Stroke causes warning signs which are usually negative in nature, and more frequently in a combination.

Examples include loss of vision, loss of speech in expression or in comprehension, loss of strength and sensation on one side of the body or face, and loss of balance and coordination.

When someone experiences one or more of these symptoms, it is important to call 911 immediately.

At the hospital, the knowledgeable stroke team will determine if you are eligible for the intravenous “clot-buster” medication, which breaks the clots and restores the blood supply to the brain. This saves many of the brain cells which are still active.

It is important to be aware of the stroke symptoms and obtain medical attention as soon as possible because the clot-buster medication can be given within the first three hours of experiencing the stroke symptoms. Beyond the three-hour period, little can be done to save those brain cells which could have been rescued, and prospective benefits are less certain. Therefore, you should not wait in anticipation that these symptoms might be improved upon later.

People 60 years and older are more prone to experience a stroke. Major health problems which increase the risk of stroke and are preventable include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and certain heart diseases with or without irregular heartbeats. Other risk factors that can be readily changed include smoking, excessive alcohol drinking, obesity and physical inactivity.

Dr. Shane Rowan, a doctor from the CardioVascular Institute of North Colorado has been explaining A-fib to us, as part of this series about the heart.