CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Stroke is the leading cause of permanent disability in men, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a big problem in the U.S. among men. It’s also the single most important risk factor of stroke. And, for men - the risk of stroke is higher and more dangerous.
The recent deaths of acclaimed film director John Singleton and actor Luke Perry, both of whom had hypertension and died of massive strokes this year, has put the increased risk of stroke that men face into the spotlight. Along with hypertension, smoking, obesity, diabetes, drinking too much and not being active all increase your risk of having a stroke. All of these factors are also more common in men.
I spoke at length with neurologist Dr. Laurie McWilliams, the medical director of the of Novant Health's Neuro Critical Care Center, who told me that men - and their families - need to know the risk factors and do whatever it takes to decrease their risk of having a stroke.
"If they're young and they have young kids, I will tell them: Do you want to see your child grow up,” she said. “Go off to college or get married or whatever their hopes and dreams are - you need to change your lifestyle now. Because it could be potentially a life or death situation as what we have seen with Luke Perry and John Singleton."
And, for Dr. McWilliams, her life's work to save people from strokes - is personal. “What life is like after a stroke, I've lived it - through my mother,” she said.
Her mom had not one - but two - strokes in 1995, shortly after McWilliams graduated from college.
“She had a minor stroke in November,” she recalled. “She spoke to me and my grandmother - her mother - and said I think my face is droopy. We looked at her and we’re like, ‘smile’ and we didn’t see it. And a month later - my mother had a major stroke. She was on a breathing machine and she was in a coma. She came out. She never regained the use of her arm. She was able to walk with a cane for a while. And so this is very personal. So, when I talk to my patients and their family members about this, I’m telling them this from the heart as well.”
It’s why she’s adamant people know the signs and symptoms of stroke - even the minor ones. “Coming in with those minor symptoms is so important because within 30 days you have a very increased - a very high risk of having a major stroke,” she said. “And when I talk about a major stroke, I mean people who are coming in plegic, not able to use their arm, their leg - their speech is out. Sometimes they’re drowsy. The high risk of death in some patients.”
Despite the increased risk men face, there is good news from the CDC as up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented. But you need to know the risk factors and make lifestyle changes as soon as possible. Dr. McWilliams also said there’s a disparity between the frequency of stroke among Black and Latino men and White men ages 45 to 64. Black and Latino Men are twice as likely to have a stroke compared to white men.
One reason - is education. “Educating and understanding your risk factors,” she said. “Paying attention to your numbers. Your diet, right? African-Americans tend to like the - as they call it the southern diet - high fatty foods, fried foods a lot of processed meat, a lot of sugars.”
By numbers, Dr. McWilliams said knowing your blood pressure, cholesterol and A1C – which determines if you’re diabetic – is critical.
Another problem driving the disparity something called psychosocial stressors - which affects people of color much more as well as financial stressors.
“If you’re specifically a man who has to provide for your fam and you’re having a hard time finding a job, the stresses or the hours that job puts on you, that in itself - huge stressor,” she said. And, poverty in itself has been looked at as a huge stressor that can be a link to hypertension and increased rates of stroke and cardiovascular disease within our population.”
In addition, knowing the signs and symptoms of stroke is key. There's even an acronym, FAST, to help you remember.
“So, "F" if you feel numbness on your face,” she explained. Or if you see a facial droop on one side of your face. The "A" is for Arms. “Usually people tell me it feels like their arm is just falling asleep and they just couldn't shake it out,” said Dr. McWilliams. “Or they just can't use that arm or that leg and they'll be dragging it across the house.” The "S" is for speech. “Slurred speech, difficulty getting out what you want to say,” she said.
Finally, the "T" for time - which is so important. Dr. McWilliams says waiting - and not calling 911 - is the worst thing you can do. “People think you can sleep it off, it’s going to get better,” she said. “That’s some of the things I’ve heard reported to me when I’m examining these people.”
Every minute counts. And, if you get to the hospital within four hours of your first symptom, you could receive a drug called TPA - which she says has been a game changer for stroke patients.
“This drug can do wonders with your stroke symptoms,” she said. “There are patients who have come in with significant stroke symptoms and have received this drug within a good time frame and have coming out walking out the hospital normal.”
An option that unfortunately, her mother never had after her major stroke in December of ’95. “This was December 2 - and a week later, TPA was FDA-approved,” she recalled. “The miracle drug. So, she just missed it.”