Stroke is the third most common cause of premature death in the UK and the biggest cause of severe disability. Every year there are approximately 152,000 strokes in the UK, according to The Stroke Association, and up to 10,000 of these could be prevented if more people were aware of the symptoms and sought out emergency treatment.

What is stroke?

Stroke is essentially a brain attack. It happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced, depriving the brain of oxygen and nutrients. The consequences of a stroke can be devastating. The longer the blood supply to the brain is interrupted by stroke, the greater the chance of disability, brain damage, or death. It is crucial that a stroke or the onset of a stroke is identified at the earliest opportunity.

Different types of stroke and the causes

There are two main types of stroke – ischaemic strokes and haemorrhagic strokes.

Most strokes are caused by a blockage cutting off the blood supply to the brain – ischaemic stroke. They occur when a blood clots blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. The 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 a person gets older, their arteries can naturally narrow, but certain things accelerate the process, including: –

  • Hypertension
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive alcohol intake
  • Smoking

Ischaemic stroke can also be caused by a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation that can cause blood clots in the heart that break away from the heart and become lodged in the blood vessels supplying the brain.

Less commonly, strokes can also be caused by a bleeding inside the brain or on the surface of the brain – haemorrhagic stroke (also known as cerebral haemorrhages or intracranial haemorrhages). They occur when a blood vessel within the skull bursts and bleeds into and around the brain. Haemorrhagic stroke can also be caused due to a condition called cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which involves a build-up of protein in the walls of the arteries in the brain that makes them prone to tearing. The main cause of a haemorrhagic stroke is high blood pressure. Things that increase the risk of high blood pressure include: –

  • Smoking
  • Lack of exercise
  • Stress (which may cause a temporary rise in blood pressure)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Excessive alcohol intake

Risk factors.

Some factors increase the risk of stroke cannot be changed. These include: –

  • Sex – men are around 25% more likely to suffer from stroke however women are more likely to die from stroke.
  • Age – you are more likely to have a stroke if aged over 65, however around 25% of strokes happen in younger people.
  • Ethnicity – certain racial groups are at a higher risk. This includes south Asian, African or Caribbean. This is partly because rates of diabetes and high blood pressure are higher in these groups.
  • Medical History – if you have previously had a stroke.

Life after Stroke.

I know from clients whose symptoms were not recognised or acted upon quick enough that strokes can be devastating. Some people may have relatively minor effects; however, others are often left with neurological damage causing severe and permanent disability meaning that they are completely dependent on others. It is vital to recognise the symptoms and get medical help immediately. Slurred speech, numbness in one arm, facial weakness, high blood pressure and blood infections are all signs to look out for. Sometimes the key signs of stroke are missed when they should not be. A delay in diagnosis and the appropriate treatment can be fatal or leave the person with life-long disability.