Now in its 25th year, The National Stroke Association has honored this month by raising awareness of the different aspects of stroke that directly affect specific populations, such as women or those at high risk for stroke.

Stroke is a leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control killing nearly 130,000 Americans each year – that's one of every 19 deaths. On average, one American dies from stroke every four minutes. About 4 million Americans who have survived a stroke are living with disabilities, with 15 to 30 percent becoming permanently disabled.

There is good news. There have been great strides in those 25 years toward helping prevent stroke and helping those stricken by stroke to recover more physical and cognitive function in the aftermath.

The bad news is, we still need to do a better job of educating people about how best to utilize the time getting a stroke victim help, once the process has started. During the past couple of decades, we have come to understand how critical time is to a stroke victim. We've developed the mantra, "Time is brain."

A lot of folks still have a mindset that, "I can get my loved one to the hospital much faster than an ambulance." This may be true in the physical sense, but not in terms of how much time will be lost in getting treatment to their loved one.

How can that be? Emergency responders and emergency room personnel can start that critical treatment as soon as you call 911. Crews en route and in the ER can assess the situation and be ready much sooner with life- and function-saving treatments than if you just show up.

There are two types of stroke. Either one causes brain cells to die quickly.

An “ischemic” stroke occurs when a clot blocks the blood supply to the brain. Ischemic strokes are the most common type of stroke. This includes the so-called “mini-stroke” – or transient ischemic attack (TIA) – which occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted only briefly.

A “hemorrhagic” stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.

In the case of ischemic strokes, it's critical the patient receive clot-busting drugs to stop the damage within the first three hours. With hemorrhagic stroke, surgery is often necessary.

Like heart disease, some of the factors that can increase your risk for stroke are beyond your control. These include your age, sex, and race/ethnicity. There are some risk factors you can control, however. Having high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes can increase your risk for stroke. Smoking and not exercising enough also are risk factors for stroke.

You can greatly reduce your risk for stroke by leading a healthy lifestyle and working with your doctor to treat and control your medical conditions.

The five most common signs and symptoms of stroke are:

• Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg.

• Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding others.

• Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

• Sudden dizziness, trouble walking, or loss of balance or coordination.

• Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

If you think someone is having a stroke, think F.A.S.T.

• F – Face drooping: Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven?

• 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? Is the person unable to speak or 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 911: If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 to get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you'll know when the first symptoms appeared.

St. Mary's hosts a Stroke Support Group the first Tuesday of most months, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Call Ashley Saffo at 816-655-5563 for information.