Stroke Myths and Facts

Here’s the truth behind some of the most common stroke myths:

1. Myth: Strokes only happen to elderly people. 

Fact: It’s true that as you age your risk for stroke goes up. However, there’s also an increasing number of strokes in people between the ages of 18 and 65, so to say that strokes only occur in the elderly is false. The growing incidence of obesity and high blood pressure in ages 18 to 65 may contribute to the increased stroke risk in this population.

2. Myth: Strokes are rare. 

Fact: Stroke statistics reveal that strokes are becoming more common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 6 million Americans have had a stroke, making it the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.

3. Myth: A stroke takes place in the heart. 

Fact: A stroke takes place in your brain. The nervous cells in your brain, called neurons, require blood flow and the nutrients and oxygen in blood to survive and function. If the blood supply to the neurons in your brain is cut off either because of a blood clot or a disease of the blood vessels, those neurons die. That’s what a stroke is.

4. Myth: Strokes aren’t preventable. 

Fact: The notion that strokes can’t be prevented is a huge myth. One of the biggest studies on stroke, called the International Stroke Study, examined risk factors and found that 90 percent of strokes can be attributed to vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity—all of which are preventable to a certain degree.

5. Myth: Strokes can’t be treated. 

Fact: The vast majority of strokes are ischemic, which are caused by a clot, and they can be treated. If a person comes to the hospital within 4.5 hours of the onset of stroke symptoms, a clot-busting medication called tissue plasminogen activator can be given that may prevent or possibly reverse damage that would’ve been done by the stroke.

6. Myth: The most common sign of a stroke is pain. 

Fact: Only about 30 percent of people will have a headache with an ischemic stroke, so pain isn’t a reliable symptom. The most common symptoms of stroke include sudden onset of numbness or weakness on one side, double vision, confusion, lack of coordination, and trouble understanding what someone is saying. If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. People with stroke symptoms are treated more promptly in the emergency room when they arrive by ambulance.

7. Myth: Strokes aren’t hereditary. 

Fact: Strokes do run in families. The vascular risk factors for stroke, such as hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, all have a genetic component. And the more rare causes of stroke in younger people, such as cardiac tumors, clotting disorders, and abnormalities with blood vessels, can also be passed down from generation to generation.

8. Myth: If stroke symptoms pass, you don’t need treatment. 

Fact: When someone has temporary symptoms of stroke, called a transient ischemic attack or TIA, it’s also a medical emergency. The difference between TIA and stroke is that the blood vessel that was blocked during a TIA opens before it causes permanent damage. However, someone who’s had a TIA has a high chance of having a stroke within one week. It’s very important to seek medical attention for any stroke-like symptoms, even if they pass.

9. Myth: Smoking doesn’t affect your chances of having a stroke. 

Fact: Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for stroke, especially in younger people. This is true for both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes, as well as first-time and recurrent strokes.

10. Myth: Stroke recovery only happens in the first few months after a stroke.

Fact: While most of the healing takes place in the first few months, recovery can span up to two years. And some studies suggest that people can benefit from physical therapy and other treatments a few years after a stroke originally took place.