Common conditions

How to prevent a stroke

One in six of us will have a stroke during our lifetime, but they’re largely preventable. Learn how to protect yourself and how to recognise the signs of stroke in others.

Karen Burge
March 2017

Every ten minutes, someone has a stroke – it’s a leading cause of death and disability in Australia. 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 preventable, treatable and beatable.

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 ward off 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), gender (stroke is more common in men), 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, Associate Professor Tim Kleinig says it can happen to anyone, no matter what their age. Around 30% of stroke survivors are of working age (under 65), which equates to around 1 in 3 of the 55,000 strokes each year.


What is a stroke?

It’s important to know what happens to your body when a stroke occurs. 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, which is responsible for four out of every five strokes.

When a bleed in the brain occurs, it causes a haemorrhagic stroke, which accounts for around one in every five strokes. Haemorrhagic stroke 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, and 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.

About one in five people who have a TIA will have a major stroke within the next three months and a large part of the risk occurs in the first few days. A TIA should never be ignored and experts refer to it as a warning sign.

Acting F-A-S-T

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

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.

As a result of the Stroke Foundation’s FAST campaign (Face Arm Speech Time), 87 percent of Australians have learned to recognise at least one sign of stroke and 000 emergency calls for stroke have increased by over 10 per cent. Spreading the word is important.

“This year alone, Australians will experience more than 55,000 strokes – that is one stroke every 10 minutes – yet, it doesn’t have to be this way,” he explains.

Counting the cost

In 2017, there will be more than 470,000 people living with the effects of stroke, with that figure expected to rise to 709,000 by 2032. 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 Associate Professor Tim Kleinig.

Next month we’ll look at how stroke care advancements have saved and improved lives, from emergency treatment and acute care to rehabilitation and long-term recovery.


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