Strokes can happen to anyone at any age, and the consequences can be devastating. We look at the causes, symptoms and prospects for recovery.
In June 2017, Jean Fray watched with pride as her daughter Marcia was married. After the ceremony, she felt unwell, and soon lost consciousness. She was rushed to hospital in Bristol, where it was confirmed she’d had a brain haemorrhage. Jean’s children, Marvin, Marcia and Bethany, and their father, Les, were given the devastating news that Jean might not recover, and, still in their wedding outfits, the family stayed by her side until she tragically passed away.
Jean, a 60-year-old primary school teacher, was fit and healthy and seemed fine on the morning of her daughter’s wedding. She was one of 100,000 stroke victims in the UK each year. On the day of her funeral three weeks later, her mother, Audrey, also died from a stroke.
Marvin, Marcia and Bethany are now campaigners for stroke awareness on behalf of the UK Stroke Association. “We have learned that strokes can impact anybody at any time. They are life-changing for the survivors and their families, as well as those that are left behind.”
Strokes are still the fourth single largest cause of death in the UK, though you are now twice as likely to survive a stroke compared to 20 years ago. There are over 1.2 million stroke survivors in the UK, and bodies such as the Stroke Association campaign for awareness, fund research and manage recovery services.
But what is stroke, what are the warning signs, what can be done to avoid it and what are the prospects for recovery when it happens?
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. Like all organs, the brain needs the oxygen and nutrients provided by blood to function properly. If the supply of blood is restricted or stopped, brain cells begin to die. This can lead to brain injury, disability and possibly death.
There are two main types of strokes: ischaemic, where the blood supply is stopped because of a blood clot, accounting for 85 percent of cases; and haemorrhagic, where a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts.
In a related condition known as a transient ischaemic attack (TIA), the blood supply to the brain is temporarily interrupted. This causes what’s known as a mini-stroke, often lasting between a few minutes and several hours.
TIAs should be treated urgently, as they’re often a warning sign you’re at risk of having a full stroke in the near future. Seek medical advice as soon as possible, even if your symptoms resolve.
All strokes are a medical emergency, and urgent treatment is essential. The sooner treatment is received, the less damage is likely to happen. If you suspect that you or someone else is having a stroke, phone 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.
The NHS suggests that the main symptoms of strokes can be remembered with the acronym F.A.S.T.:
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 may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there because of 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’s time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms
Risk Factors For Stroke
Certain conditions increase the risk of having a stroke, including:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High cholesterol levels
- Atrial fibrillation (irregular or fast heart rate)
Treatment and Recovery
Treatment for strokes depends on the type and what part of the brain was affected. The initial treatment is usually medication, including anticoagulants to dissolve and prevent blood clots, medicate to reduce blood pressure and to reduce cholesterol levels.
In some cases, surgical procedures may be required to remove blood clots, treat brain swelling and reduce the risk of further bleeding in cases of haemorrhagic strokes.
It’s a sad fact that many people who survive a stroke are left with long-term problems caused by injury to their brain. Some people need a long period of rehabilitation before they can recover their former independence, while many never fully recover and need support adjusting to living with the effects of their stroke.
Local authorities should provide free reablement services for anyone assessed as needing them. These services help the person recovering from a stroke to learn or relearn the skills necessary for independent daily living at home.
Some people will become dependent on some form of care for help with their daily activities, such as washing and dressing, or to provide companionship.
Influenza-type infections can be very serious if you’re recovering from a stroke, so you should make sure to get a free flu vaccination from your GP.
You can significantly reduce your risk of having a stroke through leading a healthy lifestyle, and remember that strokes don’t just affect adults. Every year around 400 children in the UK will have a stroke, according to the Stroke Association.
Reduce your stroke risk by:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Taking regular exercise
- Drinking alcohol only in moderation
- Not smoking
- Managing conditions such as high blood pressure or cholesterol levels
If you’ve had a stroke or TIA in the past, these measures are particularly important because your risk of having another stroke is greatly increased.
Jean Frey’s children set up a Strike Back Fund in her memory, and with the support of family, friends and colleagues, have won a fund-raising award by collecting over £30,000 for the Stroke Association. Marcia said “We want to help stroke survivors and families, and to fund more stroke research. We’re also keen to raise awareness about stroke and its risk factors as it’s not discussed as much as other diseases, despite having such a devastating impact on people’s lives.”
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