Four in ten new strokes are now occurring in the age group 40 to 69, equivalent to 22,000 new strokes every year. Intrigued? Keep reading to discover what’s behind the shift in figures and how to safeguard your health against this potentially deadly condition...
1. What exactly is a stroke?
A stroke is similar to a heart attack, except it affects the brain. A heart attack happens when blood suddenly can’t get through to a part of your heart; and a stroke happens when blood suddenly can’t reach certain parts of your brain.
During a stroke, cells in the affected areas of the brain become damaged because they’re not getting the oxygen they need from the blood, which can have long-term consequences on both the mind and body.
Around 85% of all strokes are ischaemic (caused by a clot, or blockage cutting off the bloody supply to the brain) while the remaining 15% are haemorrhagic (caused by a blood vessel bursting within, or on, the surface of the brain). Urgent treatment of either kind of stroke is essential and the sooner a person receives treatment, the less damage is likely to happen.
2. So what’s the latest?
New figures show strokes are becoming more common among British middle-aged adults, with obesity and poor diets allegedly driving the trend. Statistics have revealed that although the majority of strokes happen to people aged 70 and over, it seems an increasing number of younger people are also experiencing them, with 38% of first-time incidents occurring in those aged between 40-69 years old.
The latest figures show one person in six in the UK will have stroke this year with strokes now the third most common cause of death in the under 75s.
3. What’s behind the figures?
Senior doctors believe lifestyle factors are responsible for the shift. A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry revealed drinking has become one of the biggest causes of illnesses in the baby-boomer generation, with strokes up on the list.
Public Health England has also claimed poor diet, higher rates of obesity and smoking are putting millions of Britons at risk – two in three British adults are now classed as overweight or obese.
4. How can you tell if someone is having a stroke?
Strokes usually happen suddenly and no two are the same. To an extent, the symptoms of a stroke depend on which area of the brain is damaged, because different parts control different abilities such as speaking, memory, swallowing and moving.
The most common signs of a stroke include numbness or weakness in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side; confusion or trouble understanding others; difficulty seeing with one or both eyes; trouble walking or staying balanced or coordinated; dizziness; and severe headache that comes on for no reason.
5. Why are women more at risk than men?
Health experts believe there are some risk factors specific to women when it comes to strokes. Firstly, it’s believed high levels of the female hormone oestrogen can make the blood more likely to clot. Overall, the risks are very low but if you are concerned about using the Pill – which can raise levels of oestrogen – speak to your GP.
Secondly, it is believed that during pregnancy, health conditions such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes can raise your risk of a stroke.
6. Is anyone else at risk?
Yes – if a close relative (parent, grandparent, brother or sister) has had a stroke, your risk is likely to be higher. At the same time, if you are of South Asian origin, or from an African or Caribbean background, you may be at a higher risk of stroke than other people in the UK – people in these groups can be more likely to have conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which can raise your stroke risk.
7. Is there anything you can do to prevent a stroke?
Health experts believe simple lifestyle factors can have a significant impact on stroke prevention. These include:
Monitoring your blood pressure: High blood pressure can increase your risk of a stroke – those over the age of 40 should have regular checks (at least every five years). A normal blood pressure is defined as the upper level below 140 mmHg and the lower level below 90 mmHg.
Watching your weight: Make healthy decisions and choose heart-healthy fats such as fish and nuts, and avoid processed foods with little nutritional value or high salt and fat content. Also make an effort to stay active, partaking in physical activity at least three or four times a week.
Quitting smoking: There are hundreds of reasons to quit smoking, and preventing a stroke is yet another one. Smoking causes plaque build-up in your arteries, damages your blood vessels and increases your blood pressure – all factors that could potentially contribute to a stroke.
Drinking less: Excessive amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of a stroke. The recommended limit is 14 weekly units for women – people who drink more than this run a higher risk of stroke, high blood pressure and liver disease.
If you think you or someone you know is having a stroke, remember the acronym F.A.S.T:
F= FACE: ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A= ARM: ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S= SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Does the speech sound slurred or strange?
T= TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 999 immediately.
For more information, check out the official NHS advice.
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