A Mass General physician specializing in strokes offers insights into symptoms, trends and advances in care.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month. To highlight the condition, Lee H. Schwamm, MD, executive vice chairman of Neurology and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Stroke Service, shares information about strokes, warning signs and advances in stroke care at the hospital.

Lee H. Schwamm, MD
Lee H. Schwamm, MD

What is a stroke?

Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in America and a leading cause of adult disability. A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery – or a blood vessel breaks – interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. When either happens, brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

There is a very simple acronym to remember called FAST. The acronym stands for common stroke symptoms and a critical call to action: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty and Time to call 911. Not all strokes present in this way, but if those symptoms are present it should be considered a stroke until proven otherwise.

An alarming national trend finds more people experiencing stroke at a younger age. Why do you think that is?

One main contributing factor is lifestyle, which is increasingly sedentary. Because of the obesity epidemic, people are developing vascular disease at younger ages. In addition, more hospitals are using MRI scans to evaluate patients who present with stroke-like symptoms. These scans are helping doctors detect more strokes than before.

There is a lot you can do to help prevent a stroke. Watching what you eat and being physically active are high on the list and also help prevent dementia. If you are a smoker, quit and avoid second-hand smoke. Decrease your alcohol intake to less than one drink a day on average if you are a woman and less than two if you are a man. Too much alcohol may raise your blood pressure and add calories to your diet.

What advances in stroke care have taken place at Mass General in the last few years?

We are working on a variety of fronts to advance the care provided for stroke patients at Mass General. We are trying to apply the known evidence-based treatments for stroke patients faster, more reliably and to a broader group of patients. Our team has invested a tremendous amount of effort, in collaboration with the Emergency and Radiology departments to reduce the amount of time it takes to deliver treatments once a stroke patient arrives in our Emergency Department or at other hospitals around New England.

We know from national studies that every 15-minute decrease in the time it takes to get treatment reduces death by 5 percent

We know from national studies that every 15-minute decrease in the time it takes to get treatment reduces death by 5 percent and increases the likelihood that a stroke patient is able to go home from the hospital. We also are developing new therapies for stroke patients to improve their acute treatment and recovery, or to prevent a second stroke. In addition we are systematically collecting information about the clinical conditions, genetics and imaging findings in stroke patients – carefully characterizing the nature of their medical conditions and disabilities resulting from strokes to help predict future risk of stroke or the type of patients most likely to respond to certain treatments.

Please donate today to support advances in research and care that will help us reduce the deadly toll of stroke.

This story was first published by MGH Hotline.