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Strokes are increasingly hitting the middle-aged

New government figures have suggested more middle-aged people are getting strokes. With an ageing and increasingly obese population, effectively supporting people post-stroke back into the workplace is therefore likely to become a significant challenge for employers.

Employee health and wellbeing – stroke is increasingly hitting the middle-aged

You may well have seen the hard-hitting adverts by now, but Public Health England (PHE) in February launched a new “Act FAST” campaign designed to raise awareness among the public of what to do if they, or someone with them, starts to have a stroke.

The move followed the publication of new statistics suggesting that 57,000 people had a stroke for the first time in 2016. More worryingly, more than a third (38%) of first-time strokes were now happening in middle-aged adults, or those aged between 40 and 69.

The figures suggested one person in six in England will have a stroke in their lifetime, and around 30% of people who have a stroke will go on to experience another at a later date. There are estimated to be around 32,000 stroke-related deaths in England each year.

The good news is that deaths related to stroke have declined by 49% in the past 15 years. This has been accredited to a combination of better prevention, earlier treatment and more advanced treatment. Getting an NHS Health Check, for those aged 40 to 74 years, can identify early if you are at risk of a stroke, PHE has argued.

Strokes happening at an earlier age

As well as more strokes hitting those aged 40 to 69, more first-time strokes overall were occurring at an earlier age compared to a decade ago, PHE suggested. The average age for males having a stroke fell from 71 to 68 years and for females from 75 to 73 between 2007 and 2016.

PHE also highlighted the Stroke Association’s latest State of the Nation report which revealed that in the UK almost two thirds (65%) of stroke survivors leave hospital with a disability.

Around three quarters of stroke survivors had arm or leg weakness, around 60% had visual problems and around a half had difficulty swallowing and loss of bladder control. Communication was also affected in around a third of stroke survivors.

Professor Julia Verne, director at PHE, said: “Stroke is still one of the leading causes of death in England. While it’s often associated with older people, the latest research shows that people are having strokes at a younger age. Everyone needs to be aware of the signs.”

Post-stroke disability and return to work

So, what then should employers be taking away from this?

First of all, it’s simply about adding the “Act FAST” message to your health promotion and education, as professor Verne advises.

The Act FAST campaign urges the public to call 999 if they notice even one of the signs of a stroke in themselves, or in others:

  • Face – has their face fallen on one side? Can they smile?
  • Arms – can they raise both their arms and keep them there?
  • Speech – is their speech slurred?
  • Time – to call 999.

Second, it is about recognising that stroke is no longer simply an “old person’s disease”. It is something that can affect, and is affecting, people of all ages, increasingly middle-aged workers.

Third, recognise that supporting stroke survivors back into the workplace can be challenging, given the post-attack disabilities highlighted by the Stroke Association. Yet it is also perfectly doable. The Stroke Association, for example, has useful resources for employers here.

Link to lifestyle choices

Finally, it is about recognising the links between stroke and lifestyle factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, drinking and diabetes.

Clearly, these are societal rather than workplace-specific issues. But by promoting healthier and more active lifestyles and better diets, employers will be doing their bit not only to help tackle general health but also these rising levels of stroke.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, has put it “A stroke can hit out of the blue and when it does, whether you’re at home or at work, it is imperative that people react and act fast, as this latest campaign makes clear.

“But the new statistics also show it is important employers wake up to the fact a stroke is something that can affect their working-age population as much as older generations. As well as stroke awareness, ongoing health promotion and education around some of the lifestyle factors that can raise stroke risk, especially obesity and diabetes, will therefore be valuable.”