‘Take baby steps’ to improve health, fight stroke

Senior couple riding bicycles in a park

May is American Stroke Month. This month, take some time to learn more about strokes and how they can be prevented. Your lifestyle can influence the likelihood of a stroke, as well as how well you recover.

A stroke can happen to just about anyone. It happened to Scott Kowalski. In May 2014, the day after Mother’s Day, Scott suffered a stroke. He had just pulled into his driveway at home. A few minutes earlier and he would have been driving, and things could have been much worse.

As he was exiting his car, the stroke hit him without warning. His left side became paralyzed and he collapsed.

Scott Kowalski

“It was weird. I was a little nauseous, and as scared as I’ve ever been in my life,” Scott said.

During the ambulance ride to the hospital, Scott thought about his children and feared his wife would have to care for him for the rest of their lives. He wondered how this could happen to him.

“I had no risk factors for stroke. Unknown to me, I had a heart condition—PFO—which is a hole in my heart. One in four people have this and may not even know it,” Scott explained.

PFO, or patent foramen ovale, is caused after birth when a hole in the heart wall between the left and right atria fails to close. Most people with a PFO do not have issues, and some may not be aware they have the condition at all.

Because Scott was in good health and got medical attention right away, he made a full recovery. But many aren’t so lucky. Stroke, a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain, is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States. Each year, more than 795,000 people across the country have a stroke, and about 140,000 die from one. That’s one stroke every 40 seconds.

Stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability. It’s also the leading preventable cause of disability. The key to minimizing the impact of a stroke is to get medical attention as soon as possible. There are warning signs you can watch for to help you make the decision to seek medical care.

Signs of stroke

When a stroke occurs, it’s crucial to get medical treatment quickly. Here are symptoms that, if seen, indicate you should call 911. Remember FAST:

  • F—Face Drooping: Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.
  • A—Arm Weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S—Speech Difficulty: Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence like, “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
  • T—Time to call 9-1-1: If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get them to the hospital immediately.

Minimize your risk

The best treatment for stroke is to prevent it. There are risk factors for stroke you can avoid or manage. They include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Physical inactivity and obesity
  • Carotid or other artery disease
  • Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)
  • Atrial fibrillation (AFib) or other heart disease
  • Certain blood disorders
  • Excessive alcohol intake

“Managing blood pressure, limiting salty foods and alcohol intake, not smoking, and staying active all contribute greatly to reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack,” Scott said. “If people can just take baby steps on each of these, they can reduce the likelihood of a cardiac-related event by many percentage points.”

Maximize your health

Heart health is important, because what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Throughout our blog posts, you’ll find many ways to get active and eat better. When your heart is healthy, your risk of stroke decreases right along with your risk of heart disease. Take a look at these posts for healthy ideas and use the search feature for many more:

Yoga classes

Quitting smoking

Weight-management apps


Healthy eating

Raising stroke awareness

Scott, our survivor mentioned earlier, is WPS’ Executive Vice President of Business Development and Marketing. He’s also the chair of the American Heart Association board in Madison. Since his stroke, he has worked hard to make others aware of stroke risks and how to identify a stroke.

One local event is coming up—the 2019 Cycle for Stroke event takes place on May 8. You can register now! Participants each ride a stationary bike at Breese Stevens Field in Madison. Supporters can sponsor a rider or a team of riders. The event, sponsored in part by WPS Health Solutions, includes live music, family-friendly activities, and more. Funds raised by the event benefit community programs that help prevent stroke and heart disease.

For more information on strokes, you can find many resources online. Here are a few to get you started. If you have questions or concerns, talk to your doctor.

©2019 Wisconsin Physicians Service Insurance Corporation. All rights reserved. JO11479   34138-100-1905

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