After the unexpected death of 90210 and Riverdale star Luke Perry this week at just 52, it’s probably time we changed the way we think about strokes. “Many will be surprised the seemingly healthy and fit 52-year-old could suffer a fatal stroke,” says Emma Hammett, CEO of First Aid for Life, said. “However, the reality is strokes can strike at any age, even in babies and the very young – every year 400 children in the UK will suffer from strokes. Strokes are very common. Every two seconds someone in the world has a stroke, and it remains the fourth biggest killer in the UK.”
Here, Emma walks us through everything we need to know…
What is a stroke, exactly?
A stroke is a brain attack. Blood flow in the brain is interrupted by a blockage or bleed in one of the blood vessels, causing brain cells to become damaged or die. Blockages to the brain are a lot more common than bleeds, but both have the same symptoms. A stroke can happen to anyone of any age, even babies, although they are more common in older people. Some people are able to make a full recovery following a stroke, others experience life-changing damage and sadly for some people a stroke is fatal.
There are two main types of stroke, caused by either a blockage or a bleed. These are known as:
Ischaemic: Which are caused a blood clot blocking blood flow in the brain; these are more common and account for 85% of all cases. They can be caused by a build-up of plaque and fatty deposits in the arteries. If these plaques break away, or if they slow the blood flow to the extent that it forms a clot, they can block a blood vessel supplying the brain and cause a stroke.
Haemorrhagic: Where a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts.
What causes a stroke?
The risk of suffering from a stroke increases as you get older. This is due to the natural narrowing and hardening of our arteries as we age. Strokes are most common in people over the age of 55. But medical conditions can also increase your risk, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, atrial fibrillation and high cholesterol. You can help to reduce your risk of by working with your doctor to manage these issues.
Lifestyle choices have a major impact on the risk of stroke. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, consuming too much salt, being overweight and eating unhealthy foods damages blood vessels, increases blood pressure and dramatically raises the risk of stroke. Making healthy lifestyle choices can reduce the stress to blood vessels can substantially reduce the likelihood of someone experiencing a stroke.
Plus, people with African, Caribbean or South Asian backgrounds have a higher predisposition to diabetes, atherosclerosis and high blood pressure. Health conditions that can affect pregnant women such as pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes can also raise your risk of a stroke. However, routine ante-natal checks should pick up and treat these issues if they occur. Furthermore, if you have any health concerns when pregnant, always speak to your midwife or GP immediately.
There has been a link with the contraceptive pill, too. The risk of a stroke from using contraception is low, but some types of hormone-based contraception do carry an increased risk of stroke. However, your risk of stroke should be carefully checked before you are given any of these treatments by the doctor – women with risk factors for strokes may not be able to use contraceptive pills containing oestrogen as high levels oestrogen can make your blood more likely to clot.
What should you look for if you think someone might be suffering from a stroke?
You need to remember the acronym act F.A.S.T:
Face: Can they smile and show their teeth?
Arms: Can they raise their arms and keep them held there, or does one arm fall?
Speech: Can they repeat a phrase you give them? Is their speech slurred? Do they have difficulty remembering words?
Time: If the person is struggling with any of these three signs, it’s time to call 999.
But there are other symptoms, too. Victims might have sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, including in their legs, hands or feet; difficulty finding words or speaking in clear sentences; sudden blurred vision or loss of sight in one or both eyes; sudden memory loss or confusion, and dizziness; experience a sudden fall; or have a sudden or severe headache.
What should you do if you think someone is having a stroke?
Rapid response is vital. The quicker someone having a stroke receives treatment, the less damage is likely to happen. If someone is showing the signs of a stroke, phone an ambulance immediately and get them to a specialist Stroke Unit as soon as possible. Time is critical – an estimated 1.9 million neurons in the brain are lost every minute a stroke is untreated. If the stroke is caused by a blood clot and they are able to receive clot-busting drug treatment (Alteplase) within four and a half hours, the symptoms of the stroke can be dramatically reduced.
You also need to watch out for Trans-Ischaemic Attack (TIA), also known as a mini-stroke. This is the same as a stroke, except that the symptoms last for a short amount of time, from just a few minutes to up to 24 hours. TIAs are warning signs that someone is at high risk of having a stroke. The FAST test can be used to recognise the signs of a TIA; any stroke-like symptoms should be taken seriously and treated as a medical emergency. Do not wait to see if symptoms get better, early diagnosis and treatment can prevent a full stroke.
How are strokes treated?
Treatment depends on a number of factors. Your age, health and medical history need to be taken into account, so too does the type of stroke you have had. Treatment is determined by what caused the stroke and which part of the brain was affected.
Mostly strokes are treated with medication. The medication would target reducing blood pressure, reducing cholesterol and preventing and dissolving blood clots. Sometimes blood clots can be removed in surgery. It is possible to perform a procedure similar to angioplasty in the heart, where blockages are removed by inserting a miniature wire into the blocked artery, removing the blockage and possibly inserting a stent to keep the vessel open and improve blood flow. In the case of haemorrhagic strokes, surgery can also treat brain swelling and reduce the risk of further bleeding.
How long does it take to recover from a stroke?
Those who survive a stroke can sustain a significant injury to their brain, leaving them with long-term problems. Some people make a good and swift recovery, whereas for others it can be a very long and traumatic process. Stroke is one of the leading causes of disability in the UK. Almost two thirds of stroke survivors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland leave hospital with a disability.
In some cases, a lengthy period of rehabilitation is needed before the person who has had a stroke can fully recover. Although the biggest steps in recovery are usually in the first few weeks after a stroke, the brain’s ability to ‘re-wire’ itself – known as neuroplasticity – means it is possible to continue to improve for months or years.
It can take a lot of effort and determination to keep going with rehabilitation. It can be very hard work, physically and mentally, but many people find it helps them make vital progress with speaking, walking and other key skills. Therapists work with you to set achievable goals. You can keep a record of your progress and celebrate your successes. You might not be able to cope with much rehabilitation in the early days. When you feel stronger, you can do more.
For more information, visit FirstAidForLife.org.uk
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