Stroke: signs, symptoms & risk factors

Health correspondent

Stroke is the third most common cause of death in the UK and is caused when the brain is deprived of blood, but what's the likelihood of it happening to you and can you prevent it?

One in four men and one in five women aged 45 can expect to have a stroke if they live to 85 – mostly because uncontrolled high blood pressure is the biggest risk factor, and our blood pressure rises with age.

If your blood pressure is consistently over 140/90 you are six times more likely to have a stroke than someone of the same age with normal blood pressure. The other main risk factors are: family history, being a man, and race (Afro-Caribbeans are more at risk).

People with diabetes have double or triple the chance of a stroke, and those with heart disease are also more at risk.

Smoking doubles your risk because it furs up the arteries and makes the blood more likely to clot. The more you smoke the greater the risk and the likelihood of a stroke at a younger age. Smoking with high blood pressure is a double whammy: these people are five times more likely to have a stroke than smokers with normal blood pressure and 20 times more than non-smokers with normal blood pressure.

Is a stroke preventable?

Not entirely, but reducing blood pressure and giving up smoking are the keys. High blood pressure can be lowered by cutting salt intake by a third, to the recommended daily maximum of 6g; this would prevent one-fifth of strokes.

Very moderate drinking has a protective effect, but a Scottish study over 20 years showed that people who drank more than five units a day were twice as likely to die from a stroke than teetotallers.

Diet is boringly important. Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts) are particularly protective because they contain high levels of antioxidant vitamins, as are richly coloured fruit and veg such as blackcurrants, oranges and green and red peppers. Even eating one additional portion of fruit or veg a day can lower your stroke risk by 6%. Fibre is important too: three servings a day of wholegrain cereals can almost halve the risk.

What are the signs of stroke?

Carry out the Face-Arm-Speech Test (FAST) to see if someone has had a stroke or a mini-stroke (a transient ischaemic attack or TIA).

  • Can the person smile; has their mouth or an eye drooped?
  • Can they raise both their arms?
  • Can they speak clearly and understand what you say?

If any of these are a problem, call 999.

Numbness or paralysis on one side of the body, sudden blurred vision or loss of sight and a severe headache are also signs of a stroke or TIA.

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.