Stroke – the silent killer
International Stoke Day: 29th October 2011
The effects of a stroke can be devastating and can result in early death or permanent disability.
Furthermore, when someone does survive a stroke, it often puts an enormous burden on family
members and/or carers. Moreover, stroke-related medical costs and disability put major strain
on our healthcare system and the economy as a whole. So just how big is the problem?
Statistics show that over 25 000 South Africans die every year as a result of strokes. Alarming?
Yes, but the good news is that by adopting a healthy lifestyle and knowing your risk, you are
able to significantly decrease your chances of having a stroke.
What happens when you have a stroke?
A stroke is sometimes called a "brain attack" since it can injure the brain in the same way that a
heart attack injures the heart. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is
interrupted. Blood in the arteries that go to the brain carry oxygen and nutrients to the brain
cells. When one of these arteries becomes blocked or bursts, the flow of blood cannot reach a
part of the brain, so the brain cells in this part of the brain get damaged and the person
develops the symptoms of a stroke.
How common are strokes?*
Stroke is the third most common cause of death (6.5% of all deaths) after HIV/AIDS and heart
disease in South Africa. Black women have the highest mortality rate due to stroke (160 per
100 000), while mortality is lowest in white men (72 per 100 000). Deaths in the coloured and
black population groups are double those in the white population.
The risk of stroke increases with age, and it is therefore not surprising that there are more
stroke deaths in older age groups in SA. (According to statistics based on death registration,
stroke is the most common cause of death of people over the age of 50 years.)
What else do we need to know about strokes?
Being able to spot the warning signs is crucial. Because stroke is usually not painful, patients
with symptoms may ignore the signs and not seek medical attention in the hope that they will
feel better. People need to know that stroke is a medical emergency and that if they see any
of the warning signs they need to act FAST.
Treatment is much more effective if given early. The faster you get the person to a hospital, the
better their chance of recovery.
So, what are the warning signs?
You may be having a stroke if you experience one or more of these symptoms:
SUDDEN weakness, numbness or tingling on one or both sides of the body
SUDDEN loss of speech, trouble speaking or understanding speech
SUDDEN loss of vision in one or both eyes or double vision
SUDDEN severe and unusual headache
SUDDEN unexplained dizziness, loss of balance, trouble with walking or sudden falls
Who is at risk?
Some risk factors you can’t control, but most risk factors can be treated and managed
Risk factors you can’t change
Your age – as you get older your chances of having a stroke increase, but it can also
occur in young people, including children
Family history of stroke – if you have a close family member who has had a stroke in the
past, you have an increased chance of having a stroke
A previous stroke – sadly, once you have had one stroke, you are at higher risk of a
Risk factors you can do something about
High blood pressure
Being overweight or obese
Being physically inactive
Unhealthy diet (inadequate fruit & veg intake and, high fat, salt, sugars)
Drinking alcohol excessively
Use of illicit drugs e.g. cocaine
Atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart beat)
How can strokes be prevented?
A high percentage of strokes can be prevented through adopting a healthy lifestyle. Awareness
is the key. Having regular health assessments can help to determine if you are at risk. If you do
have high blood pressure, diabetes, high blood cholesterol or are overweight, you need to work
to keep them in a healthy range.
Being physically active and exercising regularly, as well as adopting a healthy diet and limiting
alcohol consumption will also reduce your risk.
Also crucial is avoiding cigarette smoke and exposure to second hand smoke. If you smoke, seek
help to stop now.
For more information, please visit www.heartfoundation.co.za.
* (Stroke mortality data is from the SA National Burden of Disease Study in 2000 & 2007 Stats