Stroke - can a health screen help determine your risk?

Heart Disease

Helen Marsden

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I think we were all shocked last week by the news of Andrew Marr's stroke. Apart from his age, only 53, I think that what's disturbed many people is his lifestyle - Andrew Marr doesn't fall into the category of people we normally would associate with cardiovascular disease, in particular because he is slim and a long distance runner. We've taken a lot of calls this week from people who have clearly been shaken by this story, thinking if it can happen to Andrew Marr, then can it happen to them. In particular they are asking whether there are any blood tests or health screens that can determine a higher risk for stroke?

Many of us are familiar with the cardio risk factors but the first thing to say that a heart attack and a stroke are very similar events, the major difference being that a stroke occurs in the brain or causes a blockage to the blood supply of the brain which leads to the classic symptoms of muddled thinking, slurred words and numbness and paralysis - the symptoms are dependent upon which part of the brain is affected. So most of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease also apply to strokes. 

Some of the risk factors we can do nothing about; our gender (men are more likely to suffer from a stroke), our age (mostly affecting people over the age of 55) and our ethnicity (people of afro caribbean descent are more at risk) but many of the risks are lifestyle related and they definitely are things we can do something about....provided we know about them. 

1. Blood Pressure. If you don't know your blood pressure then go and get a reading. High blood pressure is probably the single most important risk factor for stroke causing almost 50% of aschaemic strokes (caused by a clot or blockage). Most doctors' surgeries now have a machine to take blood pressure in the waiting room so there's no need to even book an appointment unless the reading is high. 

2. Smoking. Your risk of stroke is doubled if you smoke. If you gave up this January then this is another good reason to stick to your resolution! 

3. Inactivity. You need to get off the couch and get moving! Exercise does so much to reduce cardiovascular risk, reducing inflammation and keeping blood vessels supple. 

4.Diet. Avoid the usual culprits  - sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans-fats and saturated fats. Eat your 5 a day and aim to have oily fish at least twice a week.

5. Stress. It is difficult to avoid stress in today's busy world but try to take some time out at least once a day to stop what you are doing and do some breathing exercises or mindfulness meditation. 

6. Type 2 diabetes. Your risk of stroke increases if you have type 2 diabetes as blood vessel walls are more likely to be damaged by high glucose levels in the blood. 

7. Irregular heartbeat. Sufferers of atrial fibrillation or an irregular heartbeat have an increased risk of stroke. If you have noticed any signs of palpitations or the feeling that your heart is skipping a beat, get it checked out. 

8. Have a Heart Disease Risk Check. Our blood test checks your cholesterol levels as well as the level of chronic inflammation (the High Sensitivity CRP test) in your body. Inflammation can damage the walls of blood vessels making them more prone to haemorrhage as well as more susceptible to fatty deposits.  

Making essential lifestyle changes will benefit your life from many perspectives, not just by reducing your risk of heart attack or stroke. In our experience, a health screen or blood test provides the vital motivation to make these lifestyle changes a permanent feature of our lives. 

In the meanitme, our best wishes go out to Andrew Marr for a swift and full recovery - from the Medichecks team. 

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