This page gives information about what happens to your brain and body during a stroke, and how this may lead to someone becoming dangerously ill or dying.
Help for you at a difficult time
If you need someone to talk to because a loved one has died or is very ill after a stroke, contact our Helpline. Our trained Helpline professionals can give ideas on where to get practical help and emotional support. They also offer a listening ear for anyone affected by stroke.
Why does a stroke happen?
Someone can be more likely to have a stroke if they have certain health conditions or lifestyle factors such as smoking. Older people are more likely to have a stroke, although around a quarter of strokes happen to people aged 65 or under.
It’s important to remember that it’s not usually possible to predict if a stroke will happen. Most of the time, a stroke comes as a huge shock, and this shock can have a big emotional impact on the person and those around them.
Can being upset cause a stroke?
It’s a common belief that a sudden shock or anger can cause a stroke. But, although there is a small amount of evidence that that negative emotions can make a stroke more likely, little is really known about this. An event like an argument or a bereavement may happen just before a stroke, but that does not necessarily mean that one caused that other.
It is much more likely that the main cause of a stroke is the risk factors affecting that person. This can include being aged over 65, having high blood pressure or a heart condition, smoking and many other health and lifestyle factors.
Sometimes family members, especially children, can worry that a stroke was their fault. You can reassure them that they can’t give someone a stroke. It’s also not the person’s fault.
The impact of a stroke
Every stroke is different, and the effects are different for each person. The impact of a stroke depends on where the stroke takes place in the brain, and how big the damaged area is. Some people will make a good recovery, but others can have long-lasting disability or serious health problems. And like a heart attack, a stroke can sometimes cause a sudden death.
Why can a stroke endanger your life?
The brain is the main control centre for your body. It controls everything that happens inside you, including breathing, the heartbeat, and consciousness. Different parts of the brain are linked to the life support systems in our bodies. If a stroke happens in a part of the brain that controls breathing and other major organs like the heart, this can endanger your life.
How a stroke can damage the brain
Brain cells need a constant supply of blood, to give them oxygen and nutrients. If this blood supply is cut off by a clot, brain cells start to die in that part of the brain. In a stroke is due to a bleed, the blood itself is toxic to the brain cells it touches. Swelling in the brain can also damage brain cells.
How can you tell if a stroke is serious?
If a person doesn’t become fully conscious for more than a few days, their chances of pulling through are lower, especially if they have had a serious stroke. If someone is incontinent it can mean that a large area of the brain has been damaged, and this can mean a lower chance of survival. However, incontinence is common after a stroke, and it often improves.
What are the risks after a stroke?
One of the biggest risks after a stroke is that another stroke will happen. The days and weeks after a stroke are the most risky time for another stroke to happen. But there is no definite way of predicting who will have another stroke, and this can be a big worry for stroke survivors and their families.
It can be reassuring to know that when someone goes to hospital with a stroke, the doctors focus on trying to prevent another stroke. For example, they give drugs to stop blood clots forming, or treat the cause of a bleed. They also look for any health problems that may cause a stroke. They give treatment for conditions such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, high cholesterol and diabetes.
If you have any worries or questions about a loved one and their treatment in hospital, ask the doctor or stroke nurse.
Sudden death due to a stroke
Like a heart attack, a stroke can sometimes be devastating enough to take a life in an instant. Although we have treatments for acute stroke, these depend on reducing damage by allowing normal blood flow back to the brain. For example, treatments can remove a clot, or stop bleeding.
However, if a large stroke happens in a part of the brain vital to breathing or the heart, it can lead to death in a short time. If the stroke is very large, it can cause widespread damage that the brain can’t survive even if the cause of a clot or a bleed is treated.
Complications after a stroke
Complications can develop some time after a stroke, if the person’s breathing or mobility is affected. This is an important part of someone’s long-term care, and the professionals looking after them should be aware of the needs of someone affected by stroke.
- Swallowing difficulties and silent aspiration
Having difficulty with swallowing can mean that a person breathes in particles of food or drink. This can be hard to detect if the person does not cough or choke, and is known as silent aspiration. If the particles enter the lungs it can lead to chest infections such as pneumonia.
- DVT and pulmonary embolism
If someone is unable to move for a long time after a stroke, this can increase the risk of a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) forming. This is when a blood clot forms in a vein, often in the lower leg. If a clot breaks off it can block the blood flow to the lungs, known as a pulmonary embolism. Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include chest or back pain, difficulty breathing and coughing up blood. If it’s not treated straight away, it is a potentially fatal condition.
A sudden death from stroke may be very difficult to cope with. There might not be time to say goodbye, and no opportunity to resolve any difficult feelings. Or someone may survive a stroke, but die weeks or months later. This can affect family and friends in a different way, and is no less serious for those left behind.
You can read more about grieving and finding support after a bereavement on our website. You can also find useful information about managing someone else's affairs when they are no longer able to do so as well as information about making treatment decisions at the end of life.