Every 5 minutes, someone in the UK has a stroke and this is expected to rise. Stroke survivors and people who have had a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) are at a higher risk of another stroke.
Our research has helped us understand what happens in the brain during a stroke, identify who is most at risk of stroke and how we can reduce their risk.
You can read about our research success in the stories below.
Understanding the causes of stroke
Although stroke is a leading cause of death and disability worldwide, we didn’t know enough about what causes stroke in different groups of people and different regions of the world. We changed this in 2011 by boosting funding for international research that established the top causes of stroke. With this information, we can work towards more effective solutions to help people reduce their risk.
However, each stroke is different and a person’s risk of stroke can depend on a number of things. Research is yet to find signals specific to stroke that can easily and accurately predict if someone will have a stroke. We funded early studies that sparked investigations into a range of signals that are still being taken forward today.
We do know that certain health conditions, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes increase the risk of stroke. By giving people the right treatment and advice, we can help them manage these conditions to reduce their risk of stroke.
Unfortunately, after a stroke, you are at an increased risk of another stroke too. When you’re coping and adapting to life after stroke, it can be particularly hard to take action to avoid another stroke, like doing physical activity. In 2012, we funded Dr Maggie Lawrence to help develop an online tool, selfhelp4stroke, that stroke survivors and their families can use to find information and support to stick to healthy habits.
Our role busting myths about stroke
It is understandable that people are concerned about their risk of stroke. Our research has helped bust myths so we can focus on what can really help stop a stroke from happening. Read them below.
- Myth: There is nothing you can do to stop stroke happening
Stroke was once seen as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of ageing. Our support for stroke research in older adults showed that some of the risk factors for stroke are the same as in younger adults. This raised awareness for the fact that there are things we could do for older adults to stop stroke happening and amplified the voice of this group that is sometimes not included in the research.
- Myth: A heart flutter is nothing to worry about
An irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation, is now a recognised risk factor for stroke. Our support for research in the UK established evidence for how many people it affected, and the benefit that treatment of the condition could bring in reducing the devastating effects of stroke.
Medications to reduce the risk of stroke
Stroke survivors and people who have had a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) are at a higher risk of another stroke, particularly in the first days and weeks following a stroke. Our research helped get to the bottom of which medications could help them manage this risk.
For example, researchers were unsure whether medications that stop the blood clotting were safe to give stroke patients as they may increase the chance of a bleed in the brain. Our support for large studies proved they were beneficial for some groups of stroke survivors leading to clearer recommendations in the treatment guidelines.
However, finding the right medications is only part of the solution. We need to know things like, how much of the medication we can give people, and when should we start giving it to them? Our support for early-stage research into how to best control blood pressure to reduce damage caused by stroke led to the recommendation that patients are given medication as soon as possible after a stroke.
The challenge with managing medications on your own
Life after stroke can be difficult as people experience changes in what they can do physically and mentally. Stroke survivors may also be asked to take multiple new medications to manage the effects of stroke, as well as to reduce their risk of another. However, managing which medications to take, and when, can be a challenge. Therefore, we funded research to find out how stroke survivors can be supported to do this.
The researchers worked with healthcare professionals, such as pharmacists, and people affected by stroke to design new ways that stroke survivors could be supported to manage their medication and ultimately, lower their risk of another stroke.
Healthy blood vessels to reduce the risk of stroke
A stroke is a brain attack, caused when the normal supply of blood to the brain is cut off. Your blood runs through blood vessels that act like pipes so a healthy system of blood vessels is important to reduce the risk of stroke.
Our research has revolutionized our understanding of problems with blood flow to the brain, and the treatments that can be offered to restore healthy blood flow to reduce the risk of stroke.
The carotid arteries are major pipes bringing blood from the heart to the brain. But fatty materials in the blood can cause problems by building up and sticking to blood vessel walls, narrowing the ‘pipes’ or if they break off, blocking them completely. In the 1990s, a new surgery, called carotid endarterectomy, was developed that has dramatically changed how we can treat this problem and prevent stroke. Our research, mostly based at the University of Leicester, was instrumental in discovering who could benefit most from the treatment, when, and how the surgery could be made safer.
We later funded research to settle the debate on a different type of surgery, called carotid artery stenting. Rather than removing blockages, this surgery inserts a small device that makes the blood vessel wider. This new method was not shown to be any better and carried more risk in older people, providing clarity for healthcare professionals and ultimately saving lives.
Uncovering the missing links between diseases that strike the brain
Diseases of the brain do not always exist on their own. Small vessel disease (SVD) is a cause of stroke. The disease is also linked to a type of dementia, called vascular dementia and about 20% of stroke survivors go on to develop this type of dementia.
Since 2010, we have funded Professor Hugh Markus at St George’s University of London to answer important questions about SVD that has improved our understanding of why SVD can cause stroke and how potential therapies could work to combat both conditions. Their research also created and tested a new tool healthcare professionals could use to spot mental changes caused by SVD.
In 2015, we had brought together research experts, those affected by stroke, and other research funders to decide on priorities for research where gaps in evidence exist. The connection between stroke and vascular dementia was identified as an area of unmet need for research and we took action by establishing a partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society and British Heart Foundation, which has directed more funds into this area.
Judith said: “As a carer seeing the life changes caused by a stroke, it’s really interesting for me to read about this research. Looking back, I think my mum might have been living with the effects of stroke as well as dementia. It wasn’t diagnosed but she lived with me and I saw gradual changes in her ability to think that never really stabilised or improved. They just seemed to get worse. I’m really hopeful this area of research can develop to make a big difference for people affected by stroke.”