May is stroke awareness month. A stroke can happen to anyone, at any time, and at any age. Gear up with lifesaving information, not just for yourself, but also for your family, your friends, and others around you.
It is important for everyone to be aware of these signs and symptoms. If you live with or care for someone in a high-risk group – such as an elderly person or someone who has diabetes or high blood pressure – being aware of the symptoms is even more important.
Signs and symptoms
The main symptoms of stroke can be remembered with the word FAST: Face-Arms-Speech-Time.
Face – the face may have dropped on one side, the person may not be able to smile or their mouth or eye may have dropped.
Arms – the person with suspected stroke may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there because of arm weakness or numbness in one arm.
Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled, or the person may not be able to talk at all despite appearing to be awake.
Time – it is time to dial 112 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms.
How strokes are treated
Treatment depends on the type of stroke you have, including which part of the brain was affected and what caused it.
Most often, strokes are treated with medication. This generally includes medicines to prevent and remove blood clots, reduce blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels.
In some cases, surgery may be required to treat brain swelling and reduce the risk of further bleeding in cases of haemorrhagic strokes.
Can strokes be prevented?
You can significantly reduce your risk of having a stroke through a healthy lifestyle, such as eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking.
Lowering high blood pressure and cholesterol levels with medication also lowers the risk of stroke substantially, as does taking anticoagulant medication if you have an irregular heartbeat due to a condition called atrial fibrillation.
If you have had a stroke or TIA in the past, these measures are particularly important because your risk of having another stroke in the future is greatly increased.
Causes of stroke
There are two main types of stroke – ischaemic strokes and haemorrhagic strokes – which affect the brain in different ways and can have different causes.
1. Ischaemic strokes
Ischaemic strokes are the most common type of stroke. They occur when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
These blood clots typically form in areas where the arteries have been narrowed or blocked over time by fatty deposits known as plaques. This process is known as atherosclerosis.
As you get older, the arteries can naturally narrow, but certain things can dangerously accelerate the process. These include:
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- high cholesterol levels
- an excessive alcohol intake
Another possible cause of ischaemic stroke is a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, which can cause blood clots in the heart that break up and escape from the heart and become lodged in the blood vessels supplying the brain. Atrial fibrillation can have a number of different causes, including lung disease, heart valve disease, excessive alcohol intake, coronary heart disease, and an overactive thyroid gland.
2. Haemorrhagic strokes
Haemorrhagic strokes (also known as cerebral haemorrhages or intracranial haemorrhages) are less common than ischaemic strokes. They occur when a blood vessel within the skull bursts and bleeds into and around the brain. The main cause of haemorrhagic stroke is high blood pressure, which can weaken the arteries in the brain and make them prone to split or rupture.
Things that increase the risk of high blood pressure include:
- being overweight or obese
- drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- a lack of exercise
- stress, which may cause a temporary rise in blood pressure
Haemorrhagic strokes can also occur as the result of the rupture of a balloon-like expansion of a blood vessel (brain aneurysm) and badly-formed blood vessels in the brain.
Strokes are usually diagnosed by carrying out physical tests andstudying images of the brain produced during a scan. A number of tests can then be carried out to help confirm the diagnosis and determine the cause of the stroke. This may include blood tests to determine your cholesterol and blood sugar levels, checking your pulse for an irregular heartbeat and taking a blood pressure measurement.
The best way to help prevent a stroke is to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
These lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of problems such as atherosclerosis (where arteries become clogged up by fatty substances), high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, all of which are important risk factors for strokes. If you have already had a stroke, making these changes can help reduce your risk of having another one in the future.
An unhealthy diet can increase your chances of having a stroke because it may lead to an increase in your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Therefore, a low-fat, high-fibre diet is usually recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (five portions a day) and whole grains.
Ensuring a balance in your diet is important. Don’t eat too much of any single food – particularly foods that are high in salt and processed foods.
You should limit the amount of salt you eat to no more than 6g (0.2oz) a day because too much salt will increase your blood pressure. Six grams of salt is about one teaspoonful.
Combining a healthy diet with regular exercise is the best way to maintain a healthy weight, and regular exercise can also help lower your cholesterol level and keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
For most people, at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week is recommended.
If you are recovering from a stroke, you should discuss possible exercise plans with the members of your rehabilitation team. Regular exercise may not be possible in the first weeks or months following a stroke but you should be able to begin exercising once your rehabilitation has progressed.
- Stop smoking
Smoking significantly increases your risk of having a stroke. This is because it narrows your arteries and makes your blood more likely to clot.
If you stop smoking, you can reduce your risk of having a stroke. Not smoking will also improve your general health and reduce your risk of developing other serious conditions, such as lung cancer and heart disease.The Smoking Helpline can offer advice and encouragement to help you quit smoking.
- Cut down on alcohol
Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to high blood pressure and trigger irregular heartbeat (atrial fibrillation), both of which can increase your risk of having a stroke. Because alcoholic drinks are high in calories they also cause weight gain. Heavy drinking multiplies the risk of stroke by more than three times.
If you choose to drink alcohol and have fully recovered, you should aim not to exceed the recommended limits. These are:
- men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day
- women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day
If you have not fully recovered from your stroke, you may find that you will have become particularly sensitive to alcohol and even the recommended safe limits as above for the general population may be too much for you.
Managing underlying conditions
If you have been diagnosed with a condition known to increase your risk of stroke – such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, diabetes or a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) – ensuring the condition is well controlled is also important in helping prevent strokes.
The lifestyle changes mentioned above can help control these conditions to a large degree, but you may also need to take regular medication.