Risk Factors for Stroke
Stroke is a leading cause of disability and takes the lives of 140,000 Americans each year. Learn the risk factors for stroke and how to lower your risk.
Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. experiences a stroke, and every four minutes someone dies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While quick medical care can often help stroke victims avoid permanent damage, others end up with disabilities.
Despite those frightening statistics, you can be proactive and greatly lower your odds for a stroke. The key is understanding risk factors for stroke and what you can do about them.
Of course, having a risk factor for stroke doesn’t automatically mean you will experience a stroke (also sometimes called a “brain attack”) one day. On the other hand, not having any risk factors for stroke doesn’t guarantee you’ll avoid a stroke, either.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) points out your overall odds of having a stroke increase with the number and severity of your risk factors. While age isn’t a treatable risk factor, lifestyle changes and medication can lower your risk.
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A stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is disrupted because a blood vessel is either blocked by a clot (an ischemic stroke) or bursts, causing bleeding into the brain (a hemorrhagic stroke). After more than three to four minutes of this disruption, which blocks oxygen to the brain, brain cells begin to die.
Hemorrhagic strokes are the least common, causing about 13 percent of all strokes, but they are the most serious kind, according to the American Stroke Association.
Most strokes are the ischemic kind. They result when a blood clot forms in another part of the body and travels to the brain.
Both kinds of stroke share certain risk factors, as well as a few different ones.
Risk factors for stroke you can change
Treatable conditions and lifestyle factors that increase your risk of stroke include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension), marked by a blood pressure reading of greater than 120/80, is the single most important risk factor for stroke, according to the American Stroke Association. Know your numbers and work with your doctor to bring your blood pressure under control. Diet, exercise, and losing excess pounds can be effective. If not, medication can successfully treat hypertension.
- Smoking is one of the chief preventable causes of premature death in the U.S. — in addition to raising your risk of lung cancer, COPD, and heart attacks, it also increases the odds you’ll have a stroke. If you smoke and have difficulty quitting, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation strategies.
- Coronary artery disease is caused by excess cholesterol levels and plaque buildup in arteries that can result in a blood clot and ischemic stroke. Lowering your cholesterol level with exercise, diet, and, if necessary, statin drugs can modify this stroke risk.
- The most common heart arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, can cause blood clots that may break free and travel to your brain. If you have atrial fibrillation, taking anti-coagulant medication can lower this risk.
- Diabetes increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases — especially if blood sugar is elevated. Over time, high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels, raising stroke risk. If you have diabetes, get regular check-ups to make sure your blood sugar level is controlled.
- Drinking alcohol to excess can raise blood pressure levels and the risk of stroke. It also increases levels of triglycerides, a form of fat in your blood that can harden your arteries and contribute to stroke risk, the CDC points out.
- Head injuries raise the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Protect yourself from blows to the head to lower your risk: Wear your seat belt in cars and appropriate helmets when riding your bike or playing contact sports.
- Sometimes, hemorrhagic stroke is the result of an arteriovenous malformation (AVM). This genetic condition can cause a blood vessel to rupture and bleed into the brain. While you can’t prevent an AVM, once this risk factor of stroke is diagnosed, it can be treated successfully, the American Stroke Association points out.
Risk factors for stroke you can’t control
Although it is possible for people of all ages, even children, to have strokes, the risk does increase significantly as you grow older. Gender is another risk factor you can’t control — men have more strokes than women. Being pregnant, however, raises stroke risk for women.
Certain ethnic groups are also at elevated risk for stroke. For example, African Americans, Hispanics, native Americans, and Alaskan Natives have a higher risk than caucasians.
Another important risk factor is your family history. If a parent, sibling, or grandparent has experienced a stroke, you may be at increased risk. The risk, however, may be from similar lifestyle factors you share with family members (like being sedentary and overweight or smoking), rather than an inherited risk, the CDC notes.
If you’ve already had a stroke or heart attack, you have a higher-than-average risk of stroke. Following through on check-ups and taking any prescribed medication is especially important.
Your doctor can evaluate your risk factors and help you make any possible changes to lower those risks. Regular check-ups are important so problems like high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, an irregular heartbeat, and other treatable conditions can be detected and treated before they become serious and possibly trigger a stroke.
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March 27, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN