A stroke at any age can be devastating, but the condition is particularly cruel when it hits people of working age. Many survivors are unable to return to work as a result of their stroke and are often forced to cope with a fall in income, increased household bills and a benefits system that fails to fully understand the impact of their condition. Despite this, too many people aged between 20 and 64 still don't think that a stroke will happen to them.
The new figures released by the Stroke Association to mark Action on Stroke Month 2015 are without doubt alarming and lay bare the formidable challenge we now face in tackling the inexorable rise in working age stroke in the UK. The number of strokes occurring in men aged between 40 and 54 has increased by almost 50% - from 4,268 hospital admissions for stroke in 2000 to 6,221 in 2014. Women in the same group fare little better - a rise of almost a third (30%) - from 3,529 admissions in 2000 to 4,604 in 2014.
We've known for some time that obesity levels have been on the rise and there are real concerns that excess weight could replace smoking as the major killer of adults in the near future. We also know that hospital admissions practice has changed over the past 15 years, with many more stroke patients receiving the right emergency treatment.
The findings mean that more people of working age will be forced to live with the
heavy financial impact of stroke. Stroke already costs the UK economy £9bn a
year - of this, £1.3bn is due to loss of income through death and disability. Consequently, a third of stroke survivors have had to cut back on the essentials, such as food and heating.
Why does this matter? Put simply, if this deeply worrying trend continues, our already over-stretched stroke services could become completely overwhelmed. With an ageing population, and more strokes occurring in people of working age, a growing number of stroke survivors will need support in their communities to help them recover. But as we have shown, over a third of stroke survivors do not have their health and social care needs assessed when they leave hospital. This means they often miss out on vital services needed to help them recover.
So, how can we tackle this alarming rise in working-age stroke? Firstly, people must take control of their health. Despite a quarter of all strokes occurring in people under 65, almost a fifth of people aged 35-54 wrongly believe a stroke could never happen to them. The reality is that there are things we can all do to help reduce our stroke risk. If people made simple lifestyle changes, like having your blood pressure checked annually, stopping smoking, and taking regular exercise, we estimate that up to 80% of strokes could be prevented.
Returning to work is an important part of a stroke survivor's recovery. Establishing a familiar routine gives people a sense of control, normality and identity. But a lack of understanding among employers about stroke is putting stroke survivors' livelihoods, and their recovery, at risk.
The findings from our latest survey with employers on their attitudes about the impact of stroke (on their staff) are equally alarming. Just one in 20 recognised cognitive difficulties as a symptom of stroke and two-fifths (42%) said they would have concerns about an employee's ability to carry out their role.
And in a separate survey of stroke survivors, a third (31%) who had left their job after their stroke said they felt unable to remain in work, as their employer did not understand the full impact of their stroke. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Rebecca was working for one the UK's major banks in Canary Wharf, when she had her stroke in 2014. It happened out of the blue, when she was returning home from work. After a three week stay in hospital, Rebecca returned home and had intensive physiotherapy and speech and language therapy sessions. Her thoughts quickly turned to returning back to work. Rebecca was worried about how she would be able to pay the bills, which were steadily accumulating.
She contacted the Stroke Association, where she learned about our Back to Work Project. The project trains, empowers and supports stroke survivors to get back to work. We also work closely with companies, so that they have the knowledge and support they need to help stroke survivors return to the workplace.
We met with Rebecca's employers and discussed the emotional and physical impact a stroke can have. We also helped to develop a 'phased return to work' plan, which enabled Rebecca to initially work three days each week. Most importantly of all, we made sure Rebecca's employer focused on what she could do, in spite of the stroke.
With our support, Rebecca's employers did everything possible to ensure she could make a successful return to work. Six months on, she has gradually increased the hours she works and is now thriving.
But Rebecca is one of a few lucky ones. There are still too many stroke survivors who needlessly face an uphill battle to get back to work. The more employers can do to improve their understanding about the impact of stroke, the easier it will be for stroke survivors to rebuild their lives. With the right support, stroke survivors can, and do, return to work.
Finally, we need to urgently prioritise stroke prevention and research. In the UK, stroke strikes every three-and-a-half minutes and claims over 40,000 lives each year. The global burden of stroke (disability, illness and premature death) is also set to double by 2030. Despite these startling statistics, stroke continues to be under invested despite the life-changing impact it has on so many lives. For every stroke patient in the UK, for example, just £48 is spent on medical research, compared with £241 for every cancer patient. This woeful disparity must end.
This is our nation's wake up call. Stroke is preventable, beatable and treatable. We all have an important role to play in both preventing stroke, and ensuring stroke survivors can get the best possible support.
The Stroke Association has produced a guide for employers to help them understand the full impact of stroke.