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Using your head can save your brain

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Riddle: What could your credit-card airline miles and your hard-earned vacation days possibly have in common with stopping a stroke? Answer: A strict “use it or lose it” policy applies. Getting your brain cells in gear now can prevent a brain attack later.

Strokes are so scary that most of us don’t even want to think about them — one big survey found that you’re three times more likely to worry about burglaries than this threat to your most important organ. (No, not that one. We mean your brain.) But a boatload of do-it-now recent research proves that knowledge equals brain-saving power. Here’s the stroke news YOU need to know:

– Little choices help you sidestep big brain trouble. Turns out plenty of “no big deal” decisions are a big deal — like moving your hand two inches to the left when picking out canned beans in the supermarket so that you grab the type not soaked in salt. Or ordering the broiled trout instead of the fried. Or hopping on your exercise bike instead of the sofa when you’re watching “The Biggest Loser.” Or saying, “Great!” when your kid/partner/best friend says, “Let’s go see the latest ‘Harry Potter’ movie … again.” (Close ties are healthy.)

– Got any of these risks? Reverse them. No strokes on your family tree? Terrific, but you’re not home-free. Genes seem to play a smaller role in strokes than in heart attack. Focus instead on these big risks, which are reversible: high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking (including secondhand smoke), off-beat heart rhythms, clogged arteries, even advancing age (find ways to grow younger at RealAge.com, Dr. Mike’s brainchild).

– Get gold-standard brain care. It’s out there. Clot-busting drugs save brain cells after an ischemic stroke (the most common type) if you get them within a few hours of a stroke’s start. So if you spot early signs of a stroke (cut out our easy-to-remember “FAST” list below), get to a hospital with a certified stroke center at siren speed. (Put the nearest hospital’s address in your cellphone to show the EMT team.) Calling an ambulance and saying “Stroke!” can double or even quadruple the chances of getting to a stroke-certified hospital in time for clot busters to work their magic. Late arrival is a key reason just one in 25 people who need them get these brain-saving drugs.

Convinced? Take these four steps:

1. Think F-A-S-T. If you even vaguely suspect that someone (you?) is having a stroke, act F-A-S-T. It’s short for:

Face. Ask the person to smile (if it’s you, look in a mirror). If one side droops, it could be a stroke.

Arms. Ask the person to raise them. If one arm drifts downward, it could be a stroke.

Speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. If the speech is garbled or strange, it could be a stroke.

Time. See any of the signs? Call 911 right away.

Cut out this list, and stick it on your fridge.

2. Pinpoint the best local stroke care. Today. As soon as you finish reading this column, go to www.strokecenter.org or www.stroke.org to find the nearest hospital with a certified stroke center. Getting to it increases your survival chances by 20 percent. Ambulances usually will go to a stroke center, but request it anyway when you call 911.

3. Exercise slightly harder. Your brain likes it. Bumping up the intensity just a little can cut your odds by 40 percent of having a “silent” stroke — a whispered, brief brain attack that boosts your risk for the real thing five-fold. Silent strokes are super-common: About 11 percent of people ages 55 to 65 and half of people over 80 have them. Signs include one side of your body feeling numb or weak for a few moments; a vision fade-out; or a few seconds when you can’t understand what others are saying or can’t make yourself understood. Tell your doc what you think happened; it could be a warning.

4. Feed your brain smart foods. Just swapping olive oil for butter or creamy dressings could cut your stroke odds by 41 percent. Choosing broiled or poached fish instead of fried fin food three times a week can lower them 30 percent. These two simple anti-stroke steps lower your blood pressure and lousy LDL cholesterol, cool off inflammation and discourage blood clots. Then cut back on salt, which is practically fuel-injected into fast food, restaurant fare and many packaged foods. Eating lots of it increases your risk of the most common form of strokes.

The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show” and Mike Roizen of Cleveland Clinic, are authors of “YOU: Losing Weight.” For more information go to www.RealAge.com

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