New figures released by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada suggest that Canadians don't have a great understanding of strokes, nor what’s involved in recovering from one.

The poll found that half of all Canadians have a close friend or family member who has had a stroke, yet many don’t realize that it can take patients weeks or months to recover.

Dr. Sean Dukelow, a researcher at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary who focuses on stroke, says he’s particularly struck by the myth that one in five Canadians thinks a stroke is always fatal.

“That’s not the case; only about 10 per cent of people pass on after they have a stroke,” Dukelow explained to CTV’s Canada AM Monday morning.

“A large majority go on to return to life, although recovery can sometimes take weeks or months.”

Dukelow says there have been a lot of advancements in stroke care in the past few decades, and more people than ever are surviving. The first big advancement, he says, involves stroke prevention, and the identification of key risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, inactivity, and being overweight.

And yet, according to the poll, less than two-thirds of Canadians are aware that most strokes can be prevented. As well, nearly one in six believe once a person has recovered from a stroke there is nothing they can do to prevent another one. The fact is, the foundation says, up to 80 per cent of premature heart disease and strokes can be prevented by managing risk factors.

There have also been big advances in treating someone who is having a stroke, including the use of the drug tPA. If it’s administered within the first few hours after the onset of stroke symptoms, it can break up blood clots in 80 per cent of cases.

While there have been advances in stroke care and prevention, a stroke is more serious than many appear to believe. The survey revealed that more than one-third of Canadians mistakenly believe that the recovery period of a stroke is limited to a few months.

In fact, stroke recovery can continue for years or even a lifetime. A full 60 per cent of people who have a stroke report they need help afterwards, and 80 per cent have restrictions to their daily activities.

“One of the misconceptions is that you have a stroke and survive it and life goes back to normal within a few days. Certainly, that happens in some cases, but more often, recovery is a journey that can take several weeks or months,” says Dukelow.

“And that impacts not only the patient, but their family and requires very supportive caregivers to get someone through what can sometimes be a struggle.”

He notes recovery can mean a few weeks in hospital, followed by several more weeks of rehabilitation after being discharged. There are often emotional issues or cognitive change involved with strokes too, Dukelow notes, and both can be difficult for family members.

“Without supportive family, some of the patients that I see end up in a nursing home or a long-term care setting because they don’t’ have a family who can support them through the process,” he says.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation says stroke is the third leading cause of death in Canada and a key cause of disability. Approximately 50,000 strokes occur in Canada each year – one every 10 minutes – and there are about 315,000 Canadians currently living with the personal effects of a stroke.

As the population continues to age, these numbers will increase, as will the number of Canadians caring for loved ones post-stroke.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s poll was conducted by Environics by telephone between April 4 and 14, 2013 with a total of 2,002 respondents. Results of the survey are considered accurate to within plus or minus 2.19 percent, 19 times out of 20.