A stroke is a brain attack. It happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, killing brain cells. Damage to the brain can affect how the body works. It can also change how you think and feel. The effects of a stroke depend on where it takes place in the brain, and how big the damaged area is.

As we age, our arteries become harder and narrower and more likely to become blocked. However, certain medical conditions and lifestyle factors can speed up this process and increase your risk of having a stroke.

There are three different types of stroke: ischaemic strokes, haemorrhagic strokes and transient ischemic attacks.

  • An ischaemic stroke is caused by a blockage cutting off the blood supply to the brain. This is the most common type of stroke
  • A haemorrhagic stroke is caused by bleeding from a blood vessel in or around the brain
  • A transient ischaemic attack or TIA is also known as a mini stroke. It is the same as a stroke, except that the symptoms only last for a short amount of time, as occurs when the blockage that stops the blood getting to your brain is temporary

Spotting the signs of stroke – FAST

Face: Can the person smile? Has their face fallen on one side?

Arms: Can the person raise both arms and keep them there?

Speech problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say? Is their speech slurred?

Time: If you see any of these three signs, it’s time to call 999.

The FAST test helps to spot the three most common symptoms of stroke. But there are other signs that you should always take seriously. These include:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, including legs, hands or feet
  • Difficulty finding words or understanding what others are saying
  • A sudden, severe headache
  • Sudden blurred vision or loss of sight in one or both eyes
  • Sudden memory loss or confusion, and dizziness or a sudden fall
  • A sudden, very severe headache
  • Loss of consciousness

If you spot any of these signs of a stroke, don’t wait. Call 999 straight away.

Reducing the risk of stroke

You can help to reduce your risk of a stroke by making some healthy lifestyle choices. Whether it’s your diet, activity levels, smoking or drinking, it’s never too late to make a change.

Smoking – Smoking doubles your risk of dying from a stroke. But the minute you quit, your risk of a stroke starts to drop.

Alcohol – Regularly drinking too much alcohol raises your risk of a stroke. You should drink no more than 14 units a week and spread the units over the week. The limit is the same for men and women.

Maintaining a healthy weight – Being overweight makes you more likely to have a stroke. Extra weight affects your body in many ways, such as raising the risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which are both linked to stroke.

Eating well – Eating healthily helps to lower risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Even small changes to your diet can make a difference.

Being physically active – Exercise helps to reduce your risk of a stroke. Moving around will also help your emotional wellbeing by releasing chemicals into your brain that make you feel better.

Preventing further strokes

Some health problems raise your risk of a stroke. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat)
  • Diabetes and pre-diabetes
  • High cholesterol

Strokes can run in families, so speak to your GP or nurse if you have a family history of stroke. You may need some tests and health checks, and advice on reducing your risk.

If you have had a stroke, your chances of having another one is significantly increased. You’ll usually require long-term treatment with medicines that improve the risk factors for your stroke. For example:

  • Medicine to help lower your high blood pressure
  • Anticoagulants or antiplatelets – to reduce your risk of blood clots
  • Statins – to lower your cholesterol levels

You’ll also be encouraged to make lifestyle changes to improve your general health and lower your stroke risk.