Ok, so during my discovery of the prevalence of heart disease in Australian women I learnt about how that impacted on our risk of stroke.
I’m a bit embarrassed to confess that I only ever thought of stroke as a brain issue, in that – it occurs in the brain. As is my way, I never thought any further about WHAT would cause a stroke, choosing instead to assume it was just one of those ‘things’ that may or may not happen to you depending on your own personal luck. What a genius. Yes, I also wonder how I have managed to make it to adulthood unscathed.
The only person I have known personally to have a stroke is my grandfather. It was hideous to watch him live his life as a diminished man. It basically rendered him useless until he died. I always thought he was just very unlucky and so I was surprised to learn that stroke is Australia’s second biggest killer after coronary heart disease and a leading cause of disability. It kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer every year. I had no idea.
“It kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer every year.”
So let’s talk about stroke.
I’ll start with some basics that you probably already know because you’re a better grown-up than I am.
What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when an artery supplying blood to a part of the brain becomes blocked or bursts. As a result, that part of the brain is damaged because it is deprived of its blood supply which normally carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain, allowing it to function.
See? It happens in the brain. Now you can see my confusion. The thing is, the arteries in your brain carry blood from your heart. So if you’ve got heart problems then your risk of stroke is higher than those without it.
There are two types of stroke and they have different causes.
An ischaemic stroke is the most common type of stroke. It is usually caused by a blood clot in an artery that supplies blood to your brain.
A clot may form in an artery, in the brain itself, or a clot that has formed in a larger artery in your chest or neck that may break away and be carried by the bloodstream to a smaller artery in your brain where it becomes lodged.
Clots tend to form in arteries that have become narrowed by the slow build up of fatty material called ‘plaque’ or ‘atheoma’. This gradual clogging process is known as ‘atherosclerosis’, and is the same process that causes coronary heart disease.
Haemorrhagic strokes happen when an artery in your brain bursts. They lead to bleeding in your brain and squashing of the tissue around the broken artery.
This type of stroke is usually caused by high blood pressure and/or diseases involving the blood vessels in your brain.
Right, so now we all understand WHAT a stroke is and HOW it’s caused. The next obvious question is, what can we do to prevent having one?
The unsurprising main risk factors for a stroke are:
- high blood pressure
- cigarette smoking
- high blood cholesterol
- heavy alcohol use and ‘binge’ drinking
- existing heart and blood vessel disease, including disorders of heart rhythm (such as atrial fibrillation), coronary heart disease and peripheral arterial disease
- previous stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
- increasing age
To reduce your risk of stroke:
- maintain healthy blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels – have them checked regularly, follow your doctor’s advice and take any medicines as prescribed
- don’t smoke – for information on quitting smoking call the Quitline on 13 QUIT
- enjoy healthy eating – eat a variety of foods which are low in saturated fat and salt
- be physically active – include 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) on most, or all, days of the week
- drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all – if you have high blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medicine, you are advised to limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks per day (men), or one drink per day (women)
- achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
Actually, it’s comforting to know that our best defence against heart disease and consequently stroke is simply to live a healthy lifestyle.
It’s even more reassuring to know that the extent of that healthy lifestyle is actually achievable, well for me anyway. I don’t smoke, I’m fit-ish, I have a healthy-ish diet and I drink not nearly enough moderately. My only issue is I don’t know what my blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels are. Of course, as we found out earlier, the first step in the journey of prevention is to start with a firm understanding of your current heart health picture.
Scheduling a Heart Health Check with your GP will provide you with the information required to assess your risk of heart disease and subsequently, stroke.
Hang on – what’s a heart health check? Well, it’s just a consult with your GP where they will speak to you about any symptoms of heart disease, family history, smoking, weight, diet and how physically active you are.
It only takes 15 minutes and it could save your life.
So book one TODAY!