FOX13 Investigates: Why you're at high risk for stroke

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It was a beautiful Tuesday in October 2016. There are many things about the day I can't recall.  But I do remember driving, unable to think clearly, and unable to steer my truck.

The entire right side of my body just wasn't working. My vision was blurry. Nothing made sense. After driving for several blocks, I gathered my wits enough to realize that driving was a bad idea.

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So, I pulled over and dialed 911. I was taken to Baptist Hospital in Memphis and within minutes, I was told it was hemorrhagic stroke caused by a broken blood vessel in my brain.

A stroke by definition is a lack of blood flow to the brain. There are two kinds: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are typically associated with blood clots and make up 87% of all stroke cases. Hemorrhagic strokes are caused by broken blood vessels in the brain.

Both can be deadly and at the very least debilitating to some degree.

My mom was 81 when she had hers. My dad only 5 years younger when he had his.

But my thought that strokes happen only to older people was wrong dead wrong.

The average age of a stroke victim in 1995 was 71. The average age today has decreased a full two years, and in 2016, a 15-17% of all stroke victims were 50 years old or younger according to the CDC.

Why are younger people having strokes? Risk factors such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, family history all play a part. Given the fact that so many people in the Mid-South suffer from one or more of those chronic issues, the chances for stroke go way up across the board.

I later found out that the Mid South is right in the middle of what’s called the "stroke belt"; an eleven-state region which is comprised, of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

In that belt, the average age of stroke victims has fallen, with 15-17% of all strokes now happening to people 50 years of age and under.

Tennessee is 6th in the nation in the number of strokes per year.  Mississippi, 2nd.  Arkansas first.

Dr. Mark Castellaw showed me my scans one year later. "This is your CT scan they did when you first went into the ER. They found a little spot, and that's a hemorrhage in your brain," Dr. Castellaw said pointing to a large computer screen in his office.

Six days in the hospital. Three months out of work. Countless hours of physical therapy.

I wanted to know WHY this happened.

Dr. Castellaw boiled it down for me.

"This was due to your blood pressure. People they think blood pressure is no big deal.  It IS a big deal because it can lead to strokes like this," said Castellaw.

I've battled high blood pressure since about 2010. It's a by-product of my type one diabetes, and in here in the Mid-South, I'm far from alone.

Because blood pressure has become such an issue, the American Heart Association has raised the standards for what constitutes high blood pressure.  Before, a person was only considered hypertensive if their blood pressure was 140/90.

As of November 14, the new numbers are 130/80.

By that new standard, a full 46% of Americans (103 million) could now be diagnosed as having high blood pressure.

Dr. Andrei Alexandrov of the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis is one of the leading stroke doctors in the world.

I was fortunate to have him consult on my case during my hospital stay.

I went back to him for more of the bigger picture. He told me a full 50% of the stroke patients in his hospital are under 50 years old. "For some reason people who are born in the stroke belt are twice as likely to have a stroke during their life time," Alexandrov said. "It's not uncommon seeing 30-year olds, even 20-year olds with a stroke."

With those statistics in mind, I didn't have to look far to find someone just like me.  Rochelle Pirtle was in her 30's when she had her stroke. "Were you afraid?" I asked her as we walked.  "Very afraid because I could not recognize my family," she told me recounting the hours and days after her ischemic stroke in 2002.

"My doctors told me it was like Katrina hit my brain. Everything was tossed around and I've spent all this time rebuilding the damage that storm in my head did."

Rochelle told me she had to spend months learning to talk again. "Yes.  My speech, I had something called aphasia. Which I'm glad I can even say that word now. It affected my language skills," she said confidently as if nothing had ever happened. She talked about the frustration at how slow her recovery was and how, until she found a symposium for stroke survivors, she struggled with the question of why and how to move forward.

Now the former bank executive talks to others, like me, hoping to help by sharing a little of herself.  But the one message she wants to share most? "Pay attention to what your body is trying to tell you," she said.  She, like me and countless others, battled high blood pressure before the stroke.

Keeping a constant check on your blood pressure is key. "Blood pressure changes over time," said Dr. Castellaw. "While one medication may keep it in check today, that medication might need to be changed tomorrow. It's important to keep checking your pressure. This isn't something where you take one pill today and it's gone."

One year later I still feel it. I still have significant loss of feeling on the entire right side of my body. My strength and stamina are better, but nowhere near normal. My mind gets tired easily. I'm thankful. My stroke could have been worse. Even deadly according to both doctor Alexandrov and Dr. Castellaw. But like Rochelle, I'm putting back into place what the "storm" did to my brain. And trying to keep a sense of humor about it. As Dr. Castellaw said on my last visit, "You're very fortunate this was limited and you are as back to normal as you can be!"

CDC Stroke Statistics 

  • Stroke kills about 140,000 Americans each year – that's 1 out of every 20 deaths.1
  • Someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. Every 4 minutes, someone dies of stroke.2
  • Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. About 610,000 of these are first or new strokes.2
  • About 185,00 strokes--nearly 1 of 4--are in people who have had a previous stroke.2
  • About 87% of all strokes are in which blood flow to the brain is blocked.2
  • Stroke costs the United States an estimated $34 billion each year.2 This total includes the cost of health care services, medicines to treat stroke, and missed days of work.
  • Stroke is a leading cause of serious long-term disability.2 Stroke reduces mobility in more than half of stroke survivors age 65 and over.2

Stroke Statistics by Race and Ethnicity

  • Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death for Americans, but the risk of having a stroke varies with race and ethnicity.
  • Risk of having a first stroke is nearly twice as high for blacks as for whites,2 and blacks have the highest rate of death due to stroke.1
  • Though stroke death rates have declined for decades among all race/ethnicities, Hispanics have seen an increase in death rates since 2013.1

Stroke Risk Varies by Age
Stroke risk increases with age, but strokes can--and do--occur at any age.
In 2009, 34% of people hospitalized for stroke were less than 65 years old.3

Early Action Is Important for Stroke

  • Know the warning signs and symptoms of stroke so that you can act fast if you or someone you know might be having a stroke. The chances of survival are greater when emergency treatment begins quickly.
  • In one survey, most respondents –93%--recognized sudden numbness on one side as a symptom of stroke. Only 38% were aware of all major symptoms and knew to call 9-1-1 when someone was having a stroke.4
  • Patients who arrive at the emergency room within 3 hours of their first symptoms often have less disability 3 months after a stroke than those who received delayed care.4
  • Signs of Stroke in Men and Women
  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Call 9-1-1 right away if you or someone else has any of these symptoms.

Acting F.A.S.T. Is Key for Stroke

Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Stroke
When someone is having a stroke, every minute counts. Just as putting out a fire quickly can stop it from spreading, treating a stroke quickly can reduce damage to the brain. If you learn how to recognize the telltale signs of a stroke, you can act quickly and save a life -- maybe even your own.

Acting F.A.S.T. can help stroke patients get the treatments ( they desperately need. The stroke treatments that work best are available only if the stroke is recognized and diagnosed within 3 hours of the first symptoms. Stroke patients may not be eligible for these if they don't arrive at the hospital in time.

If you think someone may be having a stroke, act F.A.S.T. and do the following simple test:

F-Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A-Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S-Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
T-Time: If you see any of these signs, call 9-1-1 right away.