If there were an award for the world’s most stupidly named medical condition, ‘stroke’ would win. We use it when talking about petting a dog or caressing a lover – the complete opposite of what a medical stroke is. A serious and life-threatening condition, strokes frequently cause paralysis, slurred speech, confusion – or worse. For those who survive, a stroke can be a wholly terrifying experience – the word originally meant “stuck by God” (a far more befitting term). A stroke is caused by lack of oxygen to a part of the brain – similar to what happens during a heart attack – and any brain function can be affected. To you and me, it’s good enough just to think of stroke as a medical emergency that needs an ambulance.
So when it was announced at the beginning of May that there is “an alarming increase in the numbers of people having a stroke in working age”, the blue lights of worry started flashing in the minds of many of us. The BBC and many news outlets headlined an unpublished Stroke Association report, declaring that rates of stroke in men under 55 had ‘rocketed’ by ‘almost 50%’ since the year 2000; and the number of young women suffering a stroke had similarly increased by a third. Medical experts were wheeled out on the news channels to tell us that our desk jobs, expanding midriffs and meagre vegetable portions are at fault. If there ever were a reason to put down the iPad and pick up the tennis racket then this was it.
The only problem with the scare story is that the headlines are wrong – the risk of stroke in young adults is falling, not rising. The Stroke Association’s researchers obviously hadn’t realised that the UK’s two major stroke registers (in London and Oxford) have been showing a drop in strokes in working age adults. Yes, Britain may be getting fatter and ever-more internet-addicted, but we are also smoking less, eating less salt and being good boys and girls at taking our blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering pills.
The Stroke Association report only counted the number of people pitching up at hospital with a stroke – and correctly identified that these were increasing. This is happening not because more people are having strokes but because we are getting better at spotting stroke. A decade ago, had your Dad’s face gone droopy suddenly then you might have put it down to a ‘funny turn’. Today most of us would dial 999 (I hope). Today we also admitting more people with ‘mini strokes’ (TIAs) than ever before. In the past a GP might have just prescribed an aspirin and bedrest. We now have life-saving ‘clot-busting’ drugs that can make a real difference in stopping disability and death if the person gets to hospital quickly.
May was Action on Stroke Awareness Month, and it started with a worrying report reminding us that strokes affect people of all ages, not just the elderly. It is an important message to hear but the it should have been a good news story highlighting how medicine is saving more lives and preventing more disability than ever before. Everyone should know what to look out for and to ‘act fast’ – check out the Act F.A.S.T. campaign. The best way we can each reduce our risk of stroke is to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and avoid smoking and drinking too much alcohol. If stroke rates drop enough, perhaps the word ‘stroke’ will one day have one less meaning.
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Photo credit: Photograph by Jan-Joost Verhoef, OMGIALMOSTDIED via Flickr