Given that a stroke is the third most common cause of death in the UK, and a leading cause of disability, most of us know someone who has been affected. It has even been a recent storyline on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers!
A stroke happens when a blood clot or bleed in the brain causes damage, or death, to an area of brain tissue. Like a heart attack, this is a brain attack, and how this affects someone depends on where this occurs in their brain, and how much damage has been done. If damage occurs in the area of the brain responsible for breathing, for example, this can cause immediate death. If it occurs on the left side of the brain, the right side of the body is affected.
If it occurs in the area of the brain that is responsible for speech, then speech is affected.
Some people may be genetically more at risk of a stroke, while others make lifestyle choices that put them more at risk. Genetically, you have an increased risk if you have a family history of stroke; while your age will also put you at risk as older people’s arteries become hardened and furred up with age.
Men are more at risk than women under the age of 75, while Asian, African and Afro-Caribbean people are more at risk. If you have diabetes and heart disease, you are also more at risk – but a stroke is still not inevitable!
Risk factors for stroke include smoking, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise and being overweight. Eating healthily, with five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, choosing low-fat options, increasing your fibre intake and reducing your salt intake will all help reduce your risk, and probably your weight too. Being overweight can also increase your blood pressure, which is an additional risk factor. A healthy adult’s blood pressure reading shouldn’t exceed 140/90.
Stress and depression can also contribute to your risk, and this is something else regular exercise can help with, along with helping keep your weight stable. A healthy lifestyle will automatically reduce your risk whatever other factors – like your family history – you can’t change.
Another risk factor is having a minor stroke, or transient ischaemic attack, and not recognising either the symptoms or their importance. Knowing what the symptoms are, and acting on them, can in some cases reverse its effects, while definitely improving your chances of not going on to suffer a major stroke.
The Stroke Association has devised the FAST test to help people recognise the signs and symptoms of a stroke:
Facial weakness – can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped?
Arm weakness – can the person raise both arms?
Speech problems – can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
Time to call 999.
If there is any evidence of one or more of these symptoms, it is a medical emergency and you must call 999 because early treatment is crucial.
Find out more
The Stroke Association - www.stroke.org.uk