Health Q&A

World Stroke Day: Find Out If You’re at Risk and How You Can Prevent a Stroke

October 10, 2017

Stroke Awareness Week takes place from 28 October – 3 November, with World Stroke Day happening on 29 October. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation , 270 people in South Africa experience a stroke each day – with 67 of those proving fatal.

Strokes are South Africa’s third biggest killer overall, and the second biggest killer of women. However, the good news is 80% of deaths by stroke are preventable.
With simple lifestyle changes, you can dramatically reduce your risk of having a stroke. Find out how now:

What is a stroke?

An important part of Stroke Awareness Week is to know what is meant by a ‘stroke’.
A stroke can also be referred to as a ‘brain attack’ because the brain is affected the same way that a heart attack affects the heart.

A brain attack refers to the most common type of stroke – ischaemic stroke. This occurs when blood supply to the brain is interrupted and starved of oxygen. This lack of blood and oxygen damages the brain and can cause a stroke.
The other main type is a haemorrhagic stroke. This is caused by a burst blood vessel within the skull that causes bleeding into or around the brain. It can also happen as the result of a brain aneurysm or abnormally formed blood vessels within the brain.

What puts you at risk of a stroke?

Unfortunately, there are some uncontrollable factors that increase your risk of a stroke:
• Age
Although anyone can have a stroke, most people are aged over 55.

• Family history of stroke
Those with a close blood relative who has had a stroke (parent, grandparent, brother or sister) are likely to have a higher risk.

• Genetic conditions
Genetic disorders can cause strokes. An example is sickle cell disease. This affects your red blood cells and makes them more likely to block blood vessels.

As ischemic strokes and haemorrhagic strokes have different causes, they also have different risk factors.
In ischaemic strokes, the lack of blood flow to the brain is caused by a blood clot. The cause of these blood clots is normally due to arteries narrowing over time and although it is normal for arteries to narrow as you get older, they can prematurely narrow due to other factors, such as:

• Diabetes
• Excessive alcohol consumption
• High blood pressure (hypertension)
• High cholesterol levels
• Obesity
• Smoking

Haemorrhagic strokes are caused by brain aneurysms and burst blood vessels. Factors that increase your risk of developing a brain aneurysm include:

• Cocaine abuse
• High blood pressure
• Severe head injury (although this is very rare)
• Smoking

And, factors that increase your risk of ruptured blood vessels are:
• Head trauma or injury
• High blood pressure

How can you prevent strokes?

Although you cannot prevent all strokes, the following tips can dramatically reduce your risk.

Reduce your blood pressure
This can be done through lifestyle changes such as:
• Losing weight
• Drinking less alcohol
• Giving up smoking
• Exercising more
• Reducing stress levels

Manage any other underlying conditions
There are more conditions than just hypertension that can increase your risk of a stroke, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and atrial fibrillation.
Although following blood pressure reduction advice is good practice for overall good health, you should also understand your own individual conditions and how they may contribute to your overall risk.

Eat healthily
Unhealthy food can increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels – two risk factors. However, a balanced diet is not just recommended for aiding weight loss or managing other conditions. It is standalone good practice.
The recommended diet for stroke prevention is a low-fat, high-fibre diet – eat plenty of wholegrains, and fruit and vegetables (five a day), and reduce your salt intake to no more six grams a day. Processed foods should also be limited.

The most important thing, however, is that your diet is balanced.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

While different people will have different symptoms depending on what part of the brain has been affected. Typically, the main symptoms are the same and they usually appear suddenly, so it’s essential to act quickly.

A recommended method for identifying strokes is the acronym ‘F.A.S.T’:

Face – A person’s face dropping on one side, being unable to smile, or mouth or eye drooping is a sign.
Arms – If a person cannot lift both their arms and keep them up, this can signal weakness or numbness in one arm (which suggests a stroke).
Speech – Slurred or garbled speech is another sign. A person may sound like they are half-asleep, struggling to talk despite being fully awake.
Time – If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to call for medical help immediately to minimise the effects of the stroke.

Although this is the most common way a stroke presents itself, other symptoms are:
• Complete paralysis (loss of movement and sometimes feel) of one side of the body
• Confusion (generalised confusion, and/or difficulty in understanding what others are saying)
• Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
• Dizziness
• Loss of consciousness
• Problems with balance and co-ordination
• Sudden and very severe headache – this is described as a blinding pain unlike any other pain experienced before
• Sudden vision loss or blurring

If you experience any of these symptoms but they disappear quickly, you may have suffered a transient ischaemic attack (also known as TIA, or a mini-stroke). Although the symptoms quickly pass, these should not be ignored and you should seek medical advice as soon as possible as they can signal a serious health problem with blood supply to the brain.

Strokes are South Africa’s third biggest killer but by supporting campaigns like Stroke Awareness Week and World Stroke Day, we can help others understand that most deaths can be prevented. If you want any help with reducing your risk of a stroke by making the lifestyle choices needed to improve your health, our trained nurses would be happy to help. Please get in touch.

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