Stroke risk factors that you need to know. Most famous for his role as the ’90s heart-throb Dylan McKay in the TV series Beverly Hills 90210, we were all shocked to hear that a massive stroke was the cause of Luke Perry’s death. When a Hollywood star from our youth dies from a health issue that we generally associate with the elderly, it tends to have that effect. He was too young to suffer a stroke, right? But here’s the kicker – at 52, Perry was no longer the 20-something we remember and neither are we.
Anyone can have a stroke
Despite the misconception that strokes are only a concern for the elderly, under the right conditions, anyone can have a stroke – even children. According to a 2006 report, stroke is the fourth largest natural cause of death in South Africa. Every day 360 people have a stroke and out of those, 110 people die and 90 are left with a life-changing disability.
While we could speculate about why Perry suffered a massive stroke, our time may be better spent making sure that we understand how to recognise a stroke and how to devise a stroke prevention strategy for ourselves and our families.
What is a stroke?
A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off by a blockage or a bleed. Without blood, brain cells can be damaged or die. The type of disability caused by a stroke depends on the extent of brain damage and what part of the brain is damaged. Every minute that treatment is delayed, more a brain is damaged.
What causes a stroke?
“High blood pressure, smoking, a diet rich in fatty foods and sugary drinks, and insufficient exercise describe the lifestyle of too many South Africans – and make us more at risk of stroke,” explained Professor Pamela Naidoo, the CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA).
Although the majority of strokes can be avoided by healthy living, according to the HSFSA atrial fibrillation (also known as heart palpitations or an irregular heartbeat) is a condition that can lead to a stroke if left untreated. Stress and working long hours may also play a role. Analysis of 17 studies involving over 500 000 men and women followed for over seven years found a 1,3 times higher risk of stroke in individuals working 55 hours or more a week compared with those working a standard 40-hour workweek.
How to recognise a stroke
The severity of brain damage a stroke causes depends on how serious the stroke is and how quickly treatment is administered. “The golden rule when a person has a stroke is for them to get medical attention as soon as possible,” advised Dr Anchen Laubscher, medical director of Netcare Hospitals. “Every stroke should be treated as a medical emergency, even ‘mini-strokes’, also known as transient ischemic attacks, as these can signal that the individual could be at risk of a more serious stroke in the future.”
The warning signs of stroke can be remembered using the acronym ‘BE FAST’:
B = Balance – Is the person having trouble with balance?
E = Eyes – Is the person experiencing visual problems?
F = Face – Is there droopiness in the face?
A = Arms – Is there any weakness in the arms or legs?
S = Speech – Is the person having difficulty speaking?
T = Time – Time to call for an ambulance.
5 Stroke prevention tips
1. Identify your risks
Find out what your personal risk factors for stroke are and work with your healthcare provider to manage them. Risk factors may include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and atrial fibrillation. Managing these conditions may require a change in your diet, increasing your physical activity or taking prescribed chronic mediation.
Make exercise a part of your daily routine. You don’t have to join the gym, simply walking at a brisk pace could be enough to reduce your risk. A Harvard University study of 40 000 women aged 45 years and over has shown that moderate exercise reduces the chance of having a stroke.
3. Stop smoking and watch your alcohol intake
We know that smoking and alcohol are not healthy, but now there is even more reason to quit. Prof Naidoo of HSFSA told us that smoking triples the risk of having a heart attack and doubles the risk of having a stroke.
4. Follow a balanced healthy diet
Making sure your plate is loaded with healthy greens is a great start, but leading nutritional expert Patrick Holford has also recommended eating one to two servings a week of cold-water fish, rich in Omega-3 fats, like herrings, sardines, mackerel and pilchards. He said that, since strokes can be regarded as an inflammatory disease, Omega-3 fats are beneficial because they decrease inflammation, regulate the number of fatty triglycerides in the blood, decrease blood clotting and improve blood pressure.
5. Make time to relax
If you’re working long hours and feel stressed out most of the time, you’re running into trouble. “If we look at stress… people will very often deal with the emotional upset by making bad lifestyle choices, such as increased smoking or alcohol use, or eating junk food that leads to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, all coming together as a significant increase in our risk of stroke,” said Andrew Russman, D.O., Head of the Stroke Programme and Medical Director of the Comprehensive Stroke Centre at the Cleveland Clinic.
While no one is suggesting quitting your job, it’s important to take time out of the rat race to relax, recharge and distress. Turn your work email notifications off after hours and make time to do things that bring you joy – exercise, pray or meditate, pursue a creative hobby, go out with friends or simply read a good book.
Sources and further reading: What are stroke warning signs?, Could happiness protect you from a stroke?, How to survive a stroke, Working long hours linked to higher risk of stroke, Smoking kills 121 people a day in SA, Patrick Holford on reducing your stroke risk