May is National Stroke Awareness Month. A stroke happens when the flow of blood to a part of the brain is stopped or greatly reduced. Without the flow of blood, brain cells start to die within minutes. If blood flow is not returned quickly, the stroke can cause partial or total paralysis, or even death.

Learn the Signs of Stroke and Act FAST

Time is critical if someone is having a stroke. Learn these signs and act FAST.

  • Face: Ask the person to smile. Is the smile uneven? Does it droop on one side?
  • Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one drift down? Ask the person if one arm feels weak or numb.
  • Speech: Ask the person to say something like, “The grass is green.” Can the person repeat it? Is the person’s speech clear or is it garbled or slurred?
  • Time: Time is of the essence. Call 911 and report that someone is having a stroke. Keep track of the time to see how much time passes from the time that the first symptoms appeared. Let the paramedics know. And ask that the victim be taken to a stroke center.

4 Steps to Help Lower Your Risk of Stroke

The good news is that no matter your age or health issues, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of stroke.

Step 1: Stop smoking. The nicotine in tobacco causes blood vessels to narrow, making blockage of blood flow more likely. Once you stop smoking, your body can start to heal itself. Over time your risk of heart attack and stroke drop greatly.

Step 2: Be active. Exercise can improve your heart health and help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Being active can also help keep your weight in a healthy range. Too much weight puts you at a higher risk for stroke. Plan to be active for 30 minutes a day at least 5 days a week. If you are not active now, talk to your doctor first to learn how much and what types of activities are safe for you. Your doctor may suggest that you start with fewer than 30 minutes a day and work toward your goal.

Step 3: Eat healthy, whole foods. Eating foods high in nutrients can help lower your risk of health issues that leave you more vulnerable to stroke. These include heart disease, high cholesterol, and excess weight.

Foods to limit are those with saturated fats and trans fats, such as packaged cakes and cookies and fried foods. Too much of these fats can lead to clogged arteries and heart disease. Stick to heart-healthy fats such as olive oil and fish oil. Also, eat whole foods such as brown rice rather than processed foods such as white bread and white rice.

Eating a good amount of fruits and veggies has been shown to help with healthy blood flow. This may also help keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels in the brain. High blood sugar at the time of a stroke may mean greater long-term problems.

Step 4: Know your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for stroke. This health problem may have no symptoms. So it’s up to you to get your blood pressure checked. If your blood pressure is too high, you may be able to lower it by making changes to what you eat and becoming more active. Your doctor may ask you to also take medicine to help lower your blood pressure.

Strokes can happen no matter what your age. But you can take steps now to lower your risk. Stop smoking, maintain an active lifestyle, eat healthy foods, and keep tabs on your blood pressure and cholesterol. And if you notice signs of a stroke in yourself or someone you are with, call 9-1-1 right away or get urgent medical assistance. Strokes can be deadly. But there’s so much you can do to prevent them.