The global burden of disease is in constant flux. Just a few years ago, infectious diseases accounted for the majority of deaths globally but this trend has been reversed in recent years, with most deaths now being caused by non-infectious diseases. Much of the blame is assigned to lifestyle changes and the growing number of smokers. Something the two diseases that claim the most lives each year worldwide – heart disease and stroke – have in common is that they primarily affect the blood vessels in the body. In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at stroke.
The commonest cause of these diseases affecting the blood vessels is hardening of the arteries, or arteriosclerosis to give it its Latin name. Hardening of the arteries damages the inside of the blood vessels, with fatty deposits restricting blood flow. Risk factors for this include old age, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Stroke is a generic term for diseases that lead to a permanent disturbance in the blood supply to a part of the brain. In the vast majority of cases, around 85-90%, this is caused by a blood clot, while a less common cause is a cerebral bleed. The blood clots may either be formed locally in the brain (thrombus) or as a result of a clot travelling from either the heart or the blood vessels in the neck to the brain (embolus).
Whether the stroke has been caused by a bleed or a blood clot, it will lead to a greater or lesser part of the brain losing blood supply, and the brain cells in the affected area will die. This is what causes the symptoms of stroke, which can vary significantly depending on which part of the brain is affected. If you suspect that you or someone near you is having a stroke, it is important to seek medical attention as quickly as possible. This applies even if the symptoms go away again quickly, as this may be a preliminary warning. A useful mnemonic is FAST:
Face: Try to smile. If your mouth is lopsided or one corner of the mouth is hanging down, you may be having a stroke.
Arms: Try to stretch out both arms and then turn the palms upwards. If one of your arms drops, is jerky or uncoordinated, it may be a sign of a stroke. Paralysis, numbness and loss of strength in one side of the body are common symptoms of a stroke.
Speech: Has there been a change in your ability to speak? If your speech is slurred or you’re having difficulty finding the right words, this may indicate a stroke.
Time: If you think you may be having a stroke, you need to get to hospital as quickly as possible. Ring for an ambulance.
Rapid treatment and, where appropriate, rapid rehabilitation are vital in strokes. Some people make a full recovery but for others the damage to the brain will cause permanent problems. However, it is possible to recover your physical capacity, in full or to some degree. And although stroke is commonest in people over 70, it can affect people of all ages. That’s why it’s always better to seek medical attention and be on the safe side.