Do You Smell Burnt Toast?

It's a popular myth that someone smells burning toast or burning hair right before experiencing a stroke. Unfortunately, that tell-tale sign is incredibly rare.

In fact, many folks miss the signs of stroke, or a milder form called a transient ischemic attack. Not getting immediate treatment leads to terrible long-term problems and death.

About 600,000 people experience a first attack of stroke each year, with another 185,000 having a subsequent event.

And stroke destroys our health. In fact, stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S. and the number five killer, after heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and accidents. But it's preventable if you know what to do...

What is a stroke?

A stroke happens when a part of your brain stops getting oxygen from its blood supply. Essentially, the blood vessel feeding that section gets blocked. And without oxygen, your brain cells die.

Strokes can cause brain damage, disability, and death. That's why emergency care is required for any stroke event.

Are there different types of strokes?

Yes. There are two main types of stroke. Ischemic stroke is the most common, accounting for about 87% of all strokes. Ischemic means there's a blockage, usually from a blood clot. That closes off the blood vessel and prevents the blood (and oxygen) from reaching your brain tissue.

The other type of stroke is a hemorrhagic stroke. This happens when a weak blood vessel breaks open (or hemorrhages). Not only does your brain tissue not get the blood it needs, but the leaked blood can start to compress surrounding areas and cause more damage.

I heard something about "mini" strokes. What are those?

So-called "mini" strokes are transient ischemic attacks or TIAs. These happen when you have a partial clot or a blockage that only cuts off blood flow briefly.

TIAs only cause symptoms for a brief period of time, which makes folks tend to ignore them. Symptoms include sudden numbness in the face, arm, or leg. Other symptoms include issues with sight, speech, balance, as well as dizziness.

TIAs are important mainly because they're often the precursors to full strokes. According to the American Heart Association, about one-third of American adults have had TIA symptoms, but only 3% ever call 911. Worse, about a third of folks who experience a TIA and don't get proper treatment have a major stroke within one year.

How do I know if I'm having a stroke?

The American Heart Association has a great mnemonic device I want you to memorize: FAST.

Face drooping
Arm weakness
Speech difficulty
Time to call 911

Check these symptoms in someone you think may be having a stroke. Ask them to speak and to stick out their tongue – that may help determine facial issues like drooping or signs of slurred speech. Asking them to raise both arms is a good measure for coordination and arm strength.

Eyesight might also change, so ask if they can see clearly in both eyes. Trouble eating, swallowing, or feeling confused all indicate a stroke as well. If someone is having a stroke, get them to lie on their side and loosen tight clothing. Check their breathing and do not give them anything to eat or drink. Call 911 and get them to a hospital immediately.

If you believe you are having a stroke, don't drive. Call 911 and try to remain calm until help arrives.

So smelling burnt toast is a myth?

Smelling something that isn't there, including burning toast or hair is phantosmia. Typically, the cause is something other than a stroke.

Conditions causing this type of nose "hallucination" include migraines, nasal infections, smoking, or exposure to certain chemicals. It's much less likely to come from the brain, but may appear with Parkinson's, epilepsy, head injury, and sometimes a stroke.

The point is, don't bank on this as the "signature" symptom. More than likely, a stroke victim won't smell anything unusual.

Am I at risk for a stroke?

There are a few risk factors you can't control. At age 55, your absolute lifetime risk of stroke is about 21%. However, anyone over age 55 has a higher risk of stroke. In fact, that risk doubles every 10 years after this age.

Prior heart attacks and TIAs also increase your risk. Women and African-Americans have higher risks as well. And stroke tends to have a genetic component, meaning your family history plays a role.

Brand new research also shows that migraine sufferers who experience aura (a visual disturbance during a migraine) have a higher stroke risk. They saw a 27% increase in stroke risk for these folks over a 12-year study.

Atrial fibrillation (afib) also increases stroke risk. This irregular heartbeat also puts you at risk for kidney disease and dementia. But as we wrote previously, you can control your afib risk with monitoring and yoga.

But there are a few other risk factors you can control. That includes avoiding diets high in trans fat and other diets that raise inflammation (and contribute to heart disease). Similarly, lowering your blood pressure and controlling your diabetes reduces stroke risk. Finally, a sedentary lifestyle significantly increases stroke risk.

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How can I prevent a stroke?

We've covered several strategies to help control diabetes and high blood pressure. But one of the best steps you can take is exercise.

According to a 2013 study in Alabama, physical inactivity led to a 20% higher risk of stroke. The study is important because it covered a large group of folks, including men and women as well as Caucasians and African-Americans. Those who exercised more had a significantly lower risk of stroke. The reasoning is that moderate exercise a few times a week lowers blood pressure, reduces diabetes risk, and helps maintain a healthy weight.

In addition to exercising, cutting back on high-trans-fat foods and bad sources of saturated fat will help cut inflammation. Increasing your servings of fruits and vegetables also lowers your risk.

Remember, 10 servings a day is key... According to the Imperial College London study earlier this year, folks who eat 10 servings of fruit and veggies per day have a 33% reduction in stroke risk.

I've just had a stroke. How can I recover?

Getting immediate help is vital. Within the first few hours, doctors can start you on medications to help with blood clots. It also means reducing the possibility of long-term issues.

Stoke sufferers may require physical, occupational, and speech therapy depending on the part of their brain affected.

What's more, several studies demonstrate the benefits of exercise after a stroke. One study in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair showed that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training improved brain cognition in people who had experienced a stroke.

Whether you've already had a stroke, are worried about having one, or have a loved one at risk, taking care of heart health and blood pressure will help.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Retirement Millionaire Daily Research Team
November 7, 2017