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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Intermountain Medical Center stroke coordinator Kelly Anderson poses for photos Thursday, May 10, 2012.
We see more than anywhere in the state. —Kelly Anderson

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 850 patients were treated for strokes at the Intermountain Medical Center last year. The staff is expecting to surpass that number this year, as more people are leading unhealthy lifestyles and are therefore at higher risk for stroke.

"We see more than anywhere in the state," said Kelly Anderson, coordinator of the hospital's stroke program. She credits the high-quality care offered at IMC, as well as the speed in which patients are treated.

Anderson mans a booth at health fairs and visits a variety of organizations and agencies throughout the year, educating people on what to do in case of a stroke or witnessing another person having a stroke. She said the first thing to do is always to "call 911."

A 2009 Utah Department of Health survey states that most people could not recognize the symptoms of a stroke, which include a sudden feeling of weakness on one side of the body, changes in vision and speech, or a droop on one side of the face. About 45 percent of adults in Utah indicated they couldn't identify the stroke, nor would they think to call 911 at all.

"That's really scary to me," Anderson said. "There's not a week that goes by that we don't hear someone say they thought they should lie down and take a nap, hoping the symptoms would just go away and they'd get better."

A hospital is the safest place to be, she said, even with just one noticeable symptom. And it is important to get there as soon as possible.

A person brought in via ambulance, Anderson said, often receives treatment at least five minutes faster than those who drive themselves or arrive on their own. While the costs may be higher, in the long run it is less expensive than dealing with a lifelong disability caused by a prolonged stroke.

"Our team can be activated faster and we can treat you faster," she said.

Anderson also teaches people how to lower their risks for a stroke. A stroke can be brought on by atherosclerosis, or fat deposits within artery walls. Deposits build up over time, but especially in those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or in people who smoke and have atrial fibrillation or irregular heart rhythms. Being overweight and physically inactive can also increase a person's risk for stroke.

While strokes more commonly occur in people over 55 years of age, they are becoming more frequent in younger generations. Anderson said women in their 20s are at risk, due to specific birth control methods they are using, which hasn't been the case for long.

"When your health is poor at a younger age, it really sets you up for bad things to happen down the road," she said. Regardless of age, Anderson said a stroke can "change your life in an instant."

For some, it is a much-needed wake-up call, spurring healthier habits. Others see life-changing impacts, including long-term or permanent disability. Nearly every stroke patient is out of commission for at least a couple weeks, and sometimes much longer.

Recovery also depends upon pre-existing conditions, age, and the size and location of the stroke.

"The healthier you are, the better your chance of recovery," Anderson said, adding that making healthy lifestyle modifications, such as eating a low-salt or a low-fat diet, is a proactive way to avoid a potentially debilitating stroke.

"I think it would be a very sad life if you can't make it to the bathroom on your own, or feed yourself, or say what you want to say," Anderson said.

The same risk factors that lead to stroke can often lead to heart attacks as well, she said, which can also be devastating. "It is a major change in your life."

Anderson and Intermountain Medical Center neurohospitalist Dr. Elizabeth Sunderman will be featured on Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Healthcare Hotline. The two will answer questions from the public on the signs, symptoms and treatment of brain attacks. From 10 a.m. until noon, people can call 1-800-925-8177 or post questions on the Deseret News' Facebook page, www.facebook.com/desnews.

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