Common conditions

How to prevent a stroke

1 in 4 of us will have a stroke during our lifetime. Learn how to recognise the signs of stroke in yourself and others.

Every 20 minutes, someone in Australia has a stroke – it’s a leading cause of death and disability nationally. It kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer, yet it doesn’t capture the media spotlight as strongly or as frequently. But it should; because while stroke is a big killer, it’s often preventable and treatable.

Healthy living

Stroke Foundation Clinical Council Member, Associate Professor Tim Kleinig, says around 80 per cent of strokes can be prevented. And the best way to prevent a stroke is to live a healthy life.

“Eat well, keep a healthy weight, don’t smoke, exercise regularly, and keep alcohol consumption to a minimum,” he explains.

“High blood pressure in particular is a key risk factor for stroke. We should all be having regular blood pressure checks, whether they be at your local pharmacy or your GP.

“Small lifestyle changes can have a big impact in reducing your stroke risk. These lifestyle changes will also reduce your risk of heart attack and dementia.”

While much can be done to reduce the risk, there are some factors that are out of your hands, including age (risk increases with age) and a family history of stroke. There are also medical risk factors, including irregular pulse (atrial fibrillation) and diabetes.

While many people associate stroke with an older population, Tim says it can happen to anyone, no matter what their age. In 2020, around 24% of first-time strokes were suffered by people under the age of 54. That’s an average of around 29 strokes each day.

What is a stroke?

It’s important to know what happens to your body when you have a stroke. A stroke happens when blood supply to the brain is interrupted. Blood is carried to the brain by blood vessels called arteries, bringing with it oxygen and important nutrients for your brain cells.

When a blood clot or plaque is blocking a blood vessel, it is referred to as an ischaemic stroke.

When a bleed in the brain occurs, it causes a haemorrhagic stroke. Haemorrhagic strokes can be caused by a number of disorders which affect the blood vessels, including long-standing high blood pressure and cerebral aneurysms. An aneurysm is a weak or thin spot on a blood vessel wall, usually present at birth, that develops over a number of years.

You can also have what’s known as a ‘mini’ or ‘minor’ stroke, or more technically speaking, a transient ischaemic attack (TIA). When the signs of stroke are present but go away within 24 hours, the term TIA is used. Its causes and symptoms are similar to a stroke but are unfortunately often ignored. Just like a stroke, a TIA will require emergency treatment.

After a TIA, your risk of stroke is higher, and a large part of the risk occurs in the first few days. You must not drive for 2 weeks after a TIA and should visit your doctor immediately, as they will likely want to carry out tests. A TIA should never be ignored and experts consider it a warning sign.

Signs of a stroke

When a stroke strikes it's vital that people recognise the signs and call an ambulance quickly. “Time saved is brain saved,” says Tim.

Stroke Foundation offers an easy way for everyone to recognise the signs of stroke:

Face – Has the person’s face drooped?
Arms – Can the person raise both arms?
Speech – Is their speech slurred?
Time – Call 000 immediately.

The faster help arrives, the better chance a patient has of surviving.

Associate Professor Tim Kleinig says that as soon as a stroke attacks your brain, parts of it start to die – at a rate of up to 1.9 million brain cells a minute.

“Survival and recovery depends on fast access to treatment. The sooner a stroke is treated, the less damage it causes,” he explains.

Counting the cost

In 2020, the Stroke Foundation estimates there were over 445,000 people living with the effects of stroke in Australia, and the Foundation expects that figure to rise to over 819,000 by 2050. The good news is that advances in prevention, diagnosis and treatment of stroke have led to fewer lives being lost.

“Many people survive a stroke now who wouldn’t have before, and many who have had a stroke have recovered better than before, in some cases completely,” says Tim.

Words by Karen Burge
Updated August 2021

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