Of all the medical disasters that can befall an active, productive businessman, a paralyzing stroke is among the worst. The statistics are grim: Some 30% of stroke victims die in the first week following the attack; only three or four out of every 10 who do survive that first dangerous period ever recover sufficiently to return to work.
Yet strokes rarely come without some warning. Many could be prevented if the early signs were recognized and the underlying causes treated swiftly and effectively. Some of the danger signs may seem so minor as to go unnoticed: momentary dizziness, brief blurring of vision, temporary numbness in a foot or hand. These provide reason enough for consulting a doctor. In older men danger signs may be more noticeable but still brushed aside. Brief lapses of memory may constitute a warning of stroke danger, even though a man in his 50s or 60s may put them down to nothing more serious than "getting older." If the underlying cause is the narrowing of an artery, the physician may prescribe anticoagulant drugs or even surgery, if blockage is confined to the neck. In some cases, treatment will alleviate the danger.
The main cause of strokes (and of heart attacks) is atherosclerosis, the clogging or hardening of arteries. In a stroke, the blood supply and oxygen are cut off from the brain, causing damage to brain tissue. The extent of a stroke victim's recovery depends very much on the area of the brain that's affected and the length of time that it is deprived of blood and oxygen. There's no rule as to precisely what causes atherosclerosis. High blood pressure, heavy smoking, high blood cholesterol, overweight, limited physical activity, and inability to cope with stress all play a part. Each tends to build up fatty deposits in the arteries, which eventually may block the flow of blood to the brain. Heavy cigarette smokers, some studies show, develops obstructive arterial disease at an earlier age and to a more severe degree than light smokers. Physical inactivity leads to sluggish blood flow. Brisk walking or swimming help keep heart and arteries healthy - so long as they are done regularly and frequently. One hour a day is best, say many doctors.
Specialists claim that short periods of exercise at intervals are not sufficient - and may be dangerous. Above all, they warn against irregular bursts of activity in fact-action ,competitive sports such as tennis, handball, or squash. These can be hazardous for anyone not in top condition. A diet that cuts daily caloric and fat intake now gets strong medical support as a way to lower blood cholesterol and thus cut the danger of stroke and heart attack.
Physical examinations at least once a year can help spot conditions that may lead to a stroke - conditions that may show up as early as the teens. Arterial disease develops slowly, and tests for blood pressure, cholesterol level, and blood sugar can locate trouble before it becomes dangerous. So can x-rays of the heart and blood vessels and electrocardiograms.
Or, you might try riding a bicycle. With steady pedalling, you can keep just as physically fit. You'll find cycling less monotonous than jogging, and easier to stick with. You can keep in shape with three or four sessions a week, each half an hour to an hour. Age need not deter you. And cycle makers are now showing lightweight models made to order for the middle-aged physique.
How long does it take to get in shape? If you start sensibly (on flat surfaces) and keep at it regularly, says Western Reserve's Dr. Herman Hellerstein, "in less than six weeks, you can be going on 25-mile bike rides." Added inducement: At 5 mph on a flat surface (equal to a brisk walk), you burn up an extra 4.5... see: Cycling Spins Off Pounds