Stroke facts and fiction 

According to the Stroke Association, over 100,000 people have strokes each year in the UK. This Stroke Awareness Month, we’ve been sorting the fact from fiction to help you better understand the risk factors, symptoms, and lasting impact.

Zenya Smith
Zenya Smith

Content Manager

What is a stroke?

In the simplest terms, a stroke is a dangerous medical condition that happens when the blood supply to the brain is cut off.

There are two main reasons why blood may stop getting to the brain. The first is blood clots – which can block the body’s arteries and cut off blood flow. This is called an ischaemic stroke and accounts for around 85% of cases in the UK.

If you have a heart condition called atrial fibrillation (also known as an irregular heart rhythm), this can make you more susceptible to developing clots in the top of your heart, and your risk of ischaemic stroke.

The second cause is hemorrhage. This happens when a blood vessel carrying blood to the brain becomes weak and breaks under pressure – much like how a water pipe bursts.

Brain cells need a good blood supply to stay healthy. The longer blood is restricted, the more damaged cells become – before eventually dying.

A stroke is a medical emergency – it can lead to brain damage, long-term disability, and sometimes even death.

Every stroke is different. Some people may only experience very slight after-effects, while others may never fully recover. Some of the most common effects include communication and thinking problems, physical problems such as muscle weakness or paralysis, and extreme tiredness called ‘post-stroke fatigue’.

The act F.A.S.T protocol

The following questions can help you identify the signs of a stroke quickly. 

  • Face –  Is their face drooping on one side? Can they smile? 
  • Arms – Can they raise both arms?
  • Speech – Can they speak clearly or are they slurring or struggling with words? Are they finding it difficult to understand you?
  • Time – If they display any of the above symptoms, it’s time to call 999

1. Only elderly people are at risk of stroke

Fiction. While it’s true that older people have a higher stroke risk, anyone can experience a stroke at any age. 

According to the NHS, one in every four stroke cases occurs in people under the age of 55. The American Heart Association has warned that cases of stroke could be on the rise in younger people too. With people often drinking over the recommended intake of alcohol, eating unhealthy foods, and taking long-haul flights, blood pressure and clots are becoming more common. 

The reason that stroke is often associated with older people is that blood vessels and arteries naturally get harder and narrower with age. They may also become clogged with a fatty substance called atherosclerosis. 

 Stroke is also linked to a type of dementia, called vascular dementia. This is the second most common type of dementia and can develop after a stroke. 

2. Stroke risk factors are very similar to those for cardiovascular disease

Fact. Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella name for conditions that affect your heart or circulation. Because stroke is caused by abnormalities in your blood vessels, the risk factors are very similar.

You can reduce the likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease or experiencing a stroke by –

  • Eating a healthy diet that’s lower in fat, salt, and sugar
  • Being physically active – this can be as simple as walking into town instead of taking the bus
  • Maintaining a healthy weight – always consult a doctor before losing weight  
  • Stopping smoking 
  • Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Reducing high blood pressure either with medication or lifestyle changes
  • Reducing high cholesterol either with changes to your diet or prescribed statins
  • Controlling your blood sugar if you have diabetes
group of Elderly ladies doing gentle chair based exercises

3. Taking Aspirin can help to prevent and treat stroke 

Fiction. However, this one is based on some truth. 

Low-dose Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is often prescribed to people who are at a higher risk of heart attack or stroke. It works by making blood less sticky, which reduces the likelihood of clots and means less pressure is needed to move it around the body.

However, low-dose Aspirin is not the same as the kind you use for general pain relief – and taking regular store-bought Aspirin will not prevent a stroke.

Also, if you’re having a stroke and take Aspirin, it may actually cause more damage. Because it’s used to make blood less sticky, it could lead to severe or uncontrollable bleeding in the brain in cases of hemorrhagic stroke.

If you want to know more about taking Aspirin to prevent stroke, speak to your GP.

4. A stroke can cause a person’s behaviour to change 

Fact. Behavioural changes can happen after a stroke for a couple of reasons. 

A stroke is a huge life-changing event. Following a stroke, you may feel angry that it’s happened, or frustrated that you’re unable to do things you could before. if your recovery is slow you may also feel low, depressed, or anxious about the future. With the right support, these feelings can pass.

The damage caused to brain cells during a stroke can change a person’s behaviour too. Our brains are the centre of our understanding, our feeling, and our emotions. If the parts responsible for these functions become damaged, it becomes difficult to respond correctly to the world and people around us.

This may result in aggressive outbursts, extreme apathy, or behaviour that makes other people uncomfortable.
While these changes aren’t always guaranteed to get better with time, organisations like the Stroke Association offer support for stroke patients and their families that can help manage them.

5. Women are more likely to have a stroke

Fact. Although this is mostly due to life expectancy. 

In the UK women tend to live longer than men, and therefore are more likely to have a stroke in their lifetime. However, a study by Statista found that men may experience strokes earlier in life too. In 2020, 60% more men than women died from stroke between the ages of 45-55. 

6. If symptoms stop you don’t need to see a doctor

Fiction. A stroke always requires medical attention. 

Stroke symptoms that come and go may be a sign someone is having a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or mini-stroke.

TIAs are caused by a temporary reduction of blood to the brain, often due to a small blood clot, air bubble, or some fatty material blocking a blood vessel. This temporary blockage prevents oxygen from getting to brain cells and means they’re unable to function properly. Common signs of a TIA include blurred vision, sudden trouble with speech, and weakness in your arms or legs.

Blockages will break down or move on their own before any permanent damage is caused to the brain. Symptoms can last for as little as a few minutes, to 24 hours.

Despite this, a TIA should never be ignored. They often occur as a warning that you’re at risk of a full stroke in the future. You may also require specific medicines or surgery to prevent more TIAs.


7. Stroke recovery only happens in the first couple of weeks

Fiction. While the majority of your recovery will happen in the first six months following a stroke, you can continue to improve for many years after. 

After a stroke, your healthcare team will work with you to create a rehabilitation plan based on the effects of your stroke. They’ll look at things like your ability to eat and drink safely, your mobility, and your communication.

Rehabilitation is often difficult at first – it can be incredibly tiring and frustrating re-learning skills and strengthening your body. The specialists involved in your care will help you set achievable goals and ensure recovery happens safely.

8. Stroke prevention and treatments are improving 

Fact. According to one government study. stroke deaths in England have fallen by 49% over the past 15 years. This is believed to be a direct result of better prevention, treatment, and stroke care. 

Alteplase, for example is a fast-acting medicine that can break down blood clots. It can be highly effective in preventing damage to the brain when administered within the first four hours after a stroke.

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