25 October 2011

Stroke: SA's 3rd biggest killer

It's International Stroke Day on 29 October. Did you know that stroke is the third most common cause of death after HIV/Aids and heart disease in South Africa?


The effects of a stroke can be devastating and can result in early death or permanent disability. Furthermore, when someone does survive a stroke, it often puts an enormous burden on family members and/or carers. Moreover, stroke-related medical costs and disability put major strain on our healthcare system and the economy as a whole. So just how big is the problem?

Statistics show that over 25 000 South Africans die every year as a result of strokes. Alarming? Yes, but the good news is that by adopting a healthy lifestyle and knowing your risk, you are able to significantly decrease your chances of having a stroke.

What happens when you have a stroke?

A stroke is sometimes called a "brain attack" since it can injure the brain in the same way that a heart attack injures the heart.  A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted. Blood in the arteries that go to the brain carry oxygen and nutrients to the brain cells. When one of these arteries becomes blocked or bursts, the flow of blood cannot reach a part of the brain, so the brain cells in this part of the brain get damaged and the person develops the symptoms of a stroke.

How common are strokes?*

Stroke is the third most common cause of death (6.5% of all deaths) after HIV/Aids and heart disease in South Africa. Black women have the highest mortality rate due to stroke (160 per 100 000), while mortality is lowest in white men (72 per 100 000). Deaths in the coloured and black population groups are double those in the white population.

The risk of stroke increases with age, and it is therefore not surprising that there are more stroke deaths in older age groups in SA. (According to statistics based on death registration, stroke is the most common cause of death of people over the age of 50 years.)

What else do we need to know about strokes?

Being able to spot the warning signs is crucial. Because stroke is usually not painful, patients with symptoms may ignore the signs and not seek medical attention in the hope that they will feel better. People need to know that stroke is a medical emergency and that if they see any of the warning signs they need to act FAST.

Treatment is much more effective if given early. The faster you get the person to a hospital, the better their chance of recovery.

So, what are the warning signs?

You may be having a stroke if you experience one or more of these symptoms:

  • SUDDEN weakness, numbness or tingling on one or both sides of the body
  • SUDDEN loss of speech, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • SUDDEN loss of vision in one or both eyes or double vision
  • SUDDEN severe and unusual headache
  • SUDDEN unexplained dizziness, loss of balance, trouble with walking or sudden falls

Who is at risk?

Some risk factors you can’t control, but most risk factors can be treated and managed.

Risk factors you can’t change

  • Your age – as you get older your chances of having a stroke increase, but it can also occur in young people, including children
  • Family history of stroke – if you have a close family member who has had a stroke in the past, you have an increased chance of having a stroke
  • A previous stroke – sadly, once you have had one stroke, you are at higher risk of a recurrence

Risk factors you can do something about

  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight or obese
  • High cholesterol
  • Being physically inactive
  • Unhealthy diet (inadequate fruit & veg intake and, high fat, salt, sugars)
  • Diabetes
  • Drinking alcohol excessively
  • Use of illicit drugs e.g. cocaine
  • Atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart beat)

How can strokes be prevented?

A high percentage of strokes can be prevented through adopting a healthy lifestyle.  Awareness is the key.  Having regular health assessments can help to determine if you are at risk.  If you do have high blood pressure, diabetes, high blood cholesterol or are overweight, you need to work to keep them in a healthy range. 

Being physically active and exercising regularly, as well as adopting a healthy diet and limiting alcohol consumption will also reduce your risk.

Also crucial is avoiding cigarette smoke and exposure to second hand smoke. If you smoke, seek help to stop now.

For more information, please visit

* (Stroke mortality data is from the SA National Burden of Disease Study in 2000 & 2007 Stats SA report)

- (Health24, October 2011)

Read more:

A complete guide to stroke
Stroke: act fast and save a life

Quiz: am I at risk of a stroke?

Visit Health24's Stroke Condition Centre


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