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Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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What to Do When Someone You Know Has a Stroke

Strokes are like heart attacks to the brain. Most are caused by a sudden blockage of a blood vessel that feeds the brain. This may be due to a blood clot, a cholesterol plaque, or even spasm of the artery. Less commonly, strokes can be caused by bleeding in the brain.

Strokes are the second leading cause of death, right after heart attacks, and have many of the same risk factors, which include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • smoking
  • diabetes

Although most strokes occur in people over the age of 65, they are increasing dramatically in younger people (See my February 28, 2011 column for more on this scary trend).

When someone has a heart attack, we can often prevent or minimize permanent damage and long-term disability as long as they get to the hospital quickly. After a heart attack, people generally look the same and act the same, and are often able to get back to work and normal activity within a few weeks. Stroke survivors are not usually so fortunate. Only 10 percent will recover completely. About 25 percent will suffer brain damage serious enough to limit their ability to return to their previous level of function, although they may still be able to work.  Half will be so impaired that they require special care on a daily basis, and are really unable to participate fully in everyday life.

When someone you know suffers a stroke, their life, and the lives of their families and loved ones, is turned completely upside down.  Sadly, I know this all too well, since my dad suffered a devastating stroke due to high blood pressure while I was going through my medical training. He was at the pinnacle of his professional life, but that all changed in the blink of an eye. 

If someone you know has a stroke, the most important thing you can do for them is to let them know you still care, and that you are still their friend. A stroke can be horribly isolating because, let’s face it, the stroke victim is often not quite the same person he or she once was.  Sometimes it is simply a matter of reduced mobility and coordination, but other times thought processes and speech are impaired. The first time you see your friend after a stroke, it can be scary and hard to deal with, but don’t give up and walk away. Strokes create a heavy burden for the spouse and family, as well. Often, an occasional visit or phone call can make an enormous difference for everyone. Be a friend, offer to help the spouse with shopping, gardening, or other errands, and let your friend know that he or she is not forgotten. 

It’s important not to make light of the stroke, or to make it out to be something funny, even if that is just your way of trying to cope. Likewise, avoid the blame game. Maybe your friend was a smoker, ate too much junk food, or scoffed at exercise. He or she is well aware of these shortcomings, and there is nothing to be gained by bringing up the subject.

Although it’s a hard lesson, try to learn from what happened to your friend. If you can create a healthier way of life for yourself and for those you love, it will serve as a living testament to your friendship.

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Tags: Cholesterol and Lipids

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.