By Keeva Stratton
According to a new report, as our life expectancy improves the prevalence of stroke in Australia will continue to rise. The consequences of a stroke can devastate not only a patient’s life, but also that of their families and carers, as long-term help and care is often required. It’s a little known and frightening fact that stroke kills more Australians than breast cancer every year.
The good news is that this enormous health and economic burden can be eased through early detection and by adopting health and lifestyle choices that will significantly lower your risk. RESCU spoke with Australian Health Expert, Professor Graeme Hankey, to find out what we can do now to lower our risk of having a stroke in the future:
RESCU: What causes a stroke?
Professor Hankey: A stroke is a sudden onset of loss of function of a particular part of the body due to a loss of function of the brain. This loss of function happens when there is a blood clot or a bleed in the brain. Its main causes are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and atrial fibrillation [an abnormal heart rhythm], which are typically the result of smoking, obesity, diabetes, too many trans fats in your diet and a lack of exercise.
RESCU: Why is the rate of stroke so high?
Professor Hankey: While there has been a good education around smoking, we now have a new issue with increased obesity. People are getting the message and know how important it is to not smoke, but for those who haven’t, when you combine smoking with the pill and migraines, the risk of stroke cranks up substantially. Obesity increases your risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol, thus increasing your risk of stroke.
RESCU: What can we be doing now to ensure that we minimise our risk of having a stroke later in life?
Professor Hankey: As long as we keep adding salt and eating processed food, being overweight and not exercising, eating saturated, processed and trans fats, our risk of stroke will continue to rise. To lower your risk, you need to change your lifestyle: eat well, exercise, not smoke and monitor your health regularly, so you know your risk.
RESCU: Are there any routine medical checks that we can undergo?
Professor Hankey: It’s important to be aware of your risk, and get it assessed. Ask yourself: what’s my family history of heart disease and stroke? Is there a genetic predisposition? Your GP can use age and height prediction models or equations to predict your risk of stroke. When you visit your GP you should ask to get your blood pressure checked as well as your heart beat (ECG) for any irregularities. If you combine these tests with your regular pap smear, you are setting up a good pattern by which to monitor your health and risk.
RESCU: What should you do if you suspect a loved one is experiencing a stroke? What are the symptoms?
Professor Hankey: If there is any sudden onset of weakness in the face, arm and leg, sudden onset of unsteadiness, a sudden loss of speech or any disturbance of function, the most important thing is to get them to hospital urgently and exclude a haemorrhage. It is important to call an ambulance. Many make the mistake of going to their GP, but you need to have the stroke assessed and treated within four hours. The brain tissue only survives a few hours without the blood flow, and GPs won’t be able to give thrombolytic, or blood clot-busting therapy.
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