Around 8,500 people suffer a stroke in Ireland every year, making it one of the country’s biggest health concerns. While one in five of strokes prove fatal, many more leave sufferers with life-changing disabilities: an estimated 60,000 people are currently living in the community with stroke-related impairments.

Dr Angie Brown, medical director of the charity Irish Heart describes a stroke as a ‘brain attack.’

“Having a stroke is like having a heart attack, except it happens in the brain. The two conditions share many similarities,” she says.

"Having a stroke is like having a heart attack, except happening in the brain."

While most strokes happen over the age of 65, the reality of an attack is that one can strike at any age, with 10 to 15 per cent of all strokes affecting people aged 45 and younger.

Whatever the age at which a stroke occurs, the consequences can be ‘devastating,’ says Brown, depending on the size of the stroke and the part of the brain that has been affected.

 

Stokes explained

 

Most strokes are a result of the blood supply being cut off to part of the brain. This can happen when a blood vessel becomes too narrow or when a piece of plaque breaks off the arterial wall, forming a clot and depriving the brain of essential oxygen.

"Strokes are a result of the blood supply being cut off to part of the brain."

This type of stroke, responsible for about 80 per cent of all cases, can strike very suddenly. The remaining 20 per cent of strokes are caused by a bleed on the brain, which can present more slowly.

“A bleed can damage brain cells causing significant damage,” says Brown. “Both types can result in a loss of speech or sight depending on the area where the damage occurs.”

 

Acting FAST saves lives

 

A key factor in the outcome of all strokes is the speed at which treatment is received. When it comes to strokes, it’s important to remember to act FAST:
 

  • Face: has the person’s face dropped? Does their mouth droop at one side?
     
  • Arm: is one arm weak? Ask the person to raise both arms.
     
  • Speech: can the person speak clearly and understand what is said to them?
     
  • Time: if you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, it’s time to call an ambulance.
     

“Strokes can be big or small and symptoms include slurred speech or confusion. A weakness in the face or arms is also common. Sometimes a stroke can present as a weakness in the legs, if a patient has collapsed,” Brown says.

 

Upward trend

 

Cardiovascular disease, which can lead to stroke, is Ireland’s biggest killer, responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths a year – a figure that is set to rise.

"Due to our own lifestyles, strokes could rise by 84% by 2035."

“Due to increased levels of obesity and hypertension [high blood pressure], strokes are expected to rise by as much as 84 per cent by 2035,” says Brown.

As unwelcome as that upward trend may be, the good news is that 80 per cent of strokes are preventable. By stopping smoking, being more active, keeping your weight in check and reducing your alcohol intake, the risk of stroke is lowered considerably, as well as that of other cardiovascular conditions such as heart disease.

 

Hidden danger

 

One of the least understood causes of stroke is atrial fibrillation, which can cause a fast and irregular heartbeat.

"Atrial fibrillation is one of the least understood causes of stroke, and can affect adults of any age."

“With atrial fibrillation, the blood doesn’t circulate so well, causing it to sludge up and form a clot in the upper chambers of the heart. What’s more, it tends to form big clots so the results are likely to be more devastating,” says Brown.

Atrial fibrillation can affect adults of any age, although it’s more common in older age groups. Symptoms aren’t always present, but where they do occur they can include breathlessness, dizziness, palpitations or chest pain. An estimated 40,000 people in Ireland over the age of 50 are thought to have the condition but are unaware of it.” Fortunately a simple pulse check can help to detect it.

“Take two fingers of one hand and place it on the wrist of the other with the palm facing up, then time the pulse for a minute,’ says Brown. ‘A normal pulse rate is between 60 to 100 beats and should feel strong and regular. If it feels irregular, too fast or too slow then see your GP.”

An information film about how to check your pulse can be found at www.irishheart.ie, along with fact sheets and a free nurse helpline 1800 25 25 50.