Chut Sombutmai, MD, Neurologist, Carolinas HealthCare System
Chut Sombutmai, MD, Neurologist, Carolinas HealthCare System
Chut Sombutmai, MD, Neurologist, Carolinas HealthCare System

May is Stroke Awareness Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 130,000 people die from strokes each year. That’s one out of every 20 deaths.

During a stroke, your brain can’t get the oxygen it needs to survive. Many people die because they don’t recognize the telltale signs of a stroke.

When a stroke happens, getting to the hospital immediately is important, because minutes can mean the difference between life and death. According to the American Stroke Association, F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember the sudden signs of stroke:

F — Face drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is numb? Can you smile? Is the smile uneven?

A – Arm weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Can you raise both arms, or does one arm drift downward?

S – Speech difficulty – Is speech slurred? Are you unable to speak or hard to understand? Say the sentence: “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?

T – Time to call 911. If you or someone you know shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you can tell the doctors when the first symptoms appeared.

Anyone can have a stroke, but your risk increases if certain factors apply to you. Risk factors fall into two groups – controllable and uncontrollable. The best way to protect you and your family is to understand your risk and how to manage it.

Risk Factors You CAN and SHOULD Control

Smoking: Smoking lowers the amount of oxygen in the blood, making your heart work harder and allowing blood clots to form more easily. It also increases the amount of buildup in the arteries, which might block the flow of blood to your brain.

Obesity: If you’re overweight, you’re putting a strain on your circulatory system. You’re also more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, all of which can increase the risk for a stroke.

High Blood Pressure: When your heart has to work hard to pump blood throughout your body, the added pressure can weaken blood vessels and damage major organs, such as the brain.

High Cholesterol: Cholesterol, or plaque buildup in the arteries, can block normal blood flow to your brain, which can lead to a stroke. That old adage of eating right and exercising is the tried-and-true way to combat high cholesterol!

Atrial Fibrillation: AF is an irregular heartbeat caused when the two upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat rapidly and unpredictably. AF raises stroke risk because it allows blood to pool in the heart. In fact, a person with AF is five times more likely to have a stroke. Ask your doctor about medications and treatments that can restore a normal heartbeat.

Diabetes: If you have diabetes, the chances are higher that you also have high blood pressure or AF. Managing your diabetes can reduce the risk of a stroke.

Risk Factors Beyond Your Control

• Being a woman
• Being over 55
• Being African-American, Hispanic or of Asian/Pacific Island descent
• Having a family history of stroke or previously having a stroke yourself
• Having fibromuscular dysplasia, a disorder that causes arteries to develop irregularly
• Having a hole in the heart (which is called “patent foramen ovale”) caused by a birth defect

To learn more about strokes, visit

This column is one of a regular series submitted by Carolinas HealthCare System’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion. For more information, go to

Written by: Chut Sombutmai, MD, Neurologist, Carolinas HealthCare System