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Tackling the Global Stroke Crisis

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Almost 17million people across the world have a stroke each year - up 68% since 1990. That's a staggering one stroke every two seconds. The new findings from the largest-ever study on global stroke incidence and mortality published last week in the Lancet.

More people, on average, are having a stroke three to five years younger than they did 20 years ago. The number of working age people having a stroke (aged 20-64) is up by a quarter. And, perhaps most worryingly of all, the global burden of stroke (disability, illness and premature death) is expected to more than double by 2030.

The study shows that global deprivation is one of the biggest factors for stroke and reveals a shocking disparity between rich and poor, where death rates from stroke are up to ten times higher in lower income countries. It also suggests the dramatic rise in the number of people having stroke in the poorer regions of the world is linked to smoking and unhealthy diets. A lack of investment in stroke prevention, and the absence of organisations like the Stroke Association in deprived countries, is fuelling this shocking disparity between rich and poor.

This is a bleak assessment and lays bare the challenge now facing the health services around the world that have to deal with a looming stroke epidemic.

Closer to home, however, the report paints a more positive picture. More people than ever are surviving a stroke and that's a welcome improvement. The advances in stroke treatments, the implementation of a National Stroke Strategy and greater awareness of the signs of stroke, are saving more lives. But there are still more than 150,000 strokes every year in the UK - at least half of which could be prevented through simple lifestyle changes. And in the UK, people who have a stroke are more likely to die than someone living in France, Germany or the USA. We still have much work to do in improving stroke care here, as well as in other parts of the world. We also need to ensure that people not only understand the risks and possible effects of stroke, but can identify the symptoms and take action.

At the Stroke Association, we are proud of the role we have played in promoting stroke prevention and pushing for better access to treatments and care. While we've made important strides in the way stroke is now being treated as a medical emergency, the same level of progress is not being seen for patients leaving hospital after a stroke. The Stroke Association's research shows that many stroke survivors say that after all the effort to save their lives, they often feel abandoned when they return home. And over a third of stroke survivors are being discharged from hospital, into the community, without having had an assessment of the support they would need to make their best possible recovery. This means over a fifth are missing out on vital services, such as physiotherapy and speech and language therapy, which we know play a central role in their recovery.

With an ageing population, increasing rates of obesity and sedentary lifestyles, we could face a stroke epidemic in the UK, unless we take urgent action.

We need a renewed focus on stroke prevention. Over half of strokes are preventable, for example, by keeping blood pressure under control, eating a balanced diet and exercising more.

By investing more resources into health awareness campaigns, aimed at preventing stroke, we can make huge savings. More importantly, this will also save lives. The cost of treating stroke in the UK is around £3.7billion, with an extra £4billion from care costs and lost productivity in the workplace, as a result of disability from stroke.

All stroke survivors, and their carers, should get a full assessment of their needs when they leave hospital. This will improve their recovery and reduce the number of avoidable readmissions.

We also need more investment in stroke prevention and research, not just in the UK, but globally, and particularly in the poorer regions of the world. Stroke is the world's second biggest killer and third largest cause of death in the UK. It kills more women than breast cancer and more men than prostate cancer. Yet funding for stroke research is woefully inadequate compared to other diseases. For every cancer patient living in the UK, for example, £295 is spent on medical research, compared to just £22 per year for every stroke patient.

With the launch this year of the World Health Organisation's Global Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Action Plan, stroke is finally being treated with the seriousness it deserves. The plan provides a road map to help countries support the worldwide fight against stroke, and sets an ambitious target of a 25% reduction of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases, which include stroke, by 2025. And in December 2013, the UK will use its presidency of the G8 to hold the first global dementia summit to discuss ways to prevent, delay and effectively treat dementia - of which stroke is the second biggest cause. The challenge now is for nations around the world to join forces and deliver real improvements in the way we prevent and treat stroke

The Lancet report is a wake-up call to both the UK and international governments. By taking these important steps, we can put the UK on a path towards better stroke prevention and ensure that all stroke survivors, and their families, get the support they need.

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