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Weighing Stroke Risks

Stroke is the third lead cause of death and a major cause of serious disability in the United States.

Yet, The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay says strategies for preventing it are not always prescribed to those at risk.

A stroke occurs when a blood in the brain is blocked or bursts, damaging the brain in that area. The consequences can be catastrophic. A stroke can kill quickly, and brain damage can paralyze or rob a victim of the ability to speak and think properly. Dr. Senay says it can take years to recover from a debilitating stroke, and many people never fully regain all of the abilities or mental faculties.

"There are certain risk factors for stroke that have been identified that should serve as a basis for intervening early on in life so that future problems can be avoided," warns Dr. Senay. "Old age, male sex, non-white race and existing heart disease or family history of heart disease are all independent risk factors."

Some of these risk factors are facts of life that people can't change, but they should serve as a basis for further examination on a routine basis. If a person has more than one risk factor, the likelihood of a stroke increases. Heart disease especially is a major red flag for a future stroke. Those who have had a mild stroke will risk having a major stroke later — especially in the first few days afterward.

If a person falls into stroke-risk category, Dr. Senay says, the individual should seek medical advice because doctors can keep track of some important aspects of the patient's health to keep stroke risk down.

"There are the usual suspects like obesity, smoking, physical inactivity and heavy alcohol use," says Dr. Senay. "But also some that may not be as apparent, like diabetes, heart arrythmia, high blood pressure and high cholesterol."

These are risk factors that patients can try to modify through diet and exercise. If that doesn't work, doctors can also prescribe drugs to control high cholesterol, diabetes, arrythmia and high blood pressure.

Aspirin therapy for people with heart disease also significantly lowers the risk of a stroke.