To Prevent Stroke, First Know the Risk Factors

Stroke is the leading cause of adult disability and the third leading cause of death in the United States. Each year, more than 785,000 people in the US have a stroke or recurrent stroke. That’s the bad news.

The good news is most strokes are preventable. Knowing the risk factors and the signs and symptoms of stroke are the first steps to reducing your risk.

Stroke Risk Factors

Some stroke risk factors are hereditary or are functions of natural processes; others result from lifestyle choices. Risk factors relating to your lifestyle or environment can be modified with the help of a health-care professional.

• Age: Your chances of having a stroke approximately doubles for each decade of life after age 55. While stroke is common among the elderly, many people under 65 also have strokes.

• Heredity (family history) and race — Your stroke risk is greater if a parent, grandparent, sister or brother has had a stroke. African Americans have a much higher risk of death from a stroke than Caucasians. 

• Sex (gender) — Stroke is more common in men than in women. At all ages, more women than men die of stroke. Use of birth control pills and pregnancy pose special stroke risks for women.

• Prior stroke, TIA or heart attack —Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are "warning strokes" that produce stroke-like symptoms but no lasting damage. TIAs are strong predictors of stroke. A person who has had one or more TIAs is almost 10 times more likely to have a stroke than someone of the same age and sex who has not had a TIA.

• High blood pressure — High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke and the most important controllable risk factor for stroke. 

• Cigarette smoking — In recent years, studies have shown cigarette smoking to be an important risk factor for stroke. Nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke damage the cardiovascular system in many ways. The use of oral contraceptives combined with cigarette smoking greatly increases stroke risk.

• Diabetes mellitus — Diabetes is an independent risk factor for stroke. Many people with diabetes also have high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and are overweight, which increases their risk even more. While diabetes is treatable, the presence of the disease still increases your risk of stroke.

• Carotid or other artery disease — The carotid arteries in your neck supply blood to your brain. A carotid artery narrowed by fatty deposits from atherosclerosis (plaque buildups in artery walls) may become blocked by a blood clot. Carotid artery disease is also called carotid artery stenosis.  

• Atrial fibrillation — This heart rhythm disorder raises the risk for stroke. The heart's upper chambers quiver instead of beating effectively, which can let the blood pool and clot. If a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results.

• Other heart disease — People with coronary heart disease or heart failure have a higher risk of stroke than those with hearts that work normally. 

• Sickle cell disease (also called sickle cell anemia) — This is a genetic disorder that mainly affects African-American and Hispanic children. "Sickled" red blood cells are less able to carry oxygen to the body's tissues and organs. These cells also tend to stick to blood vessel walls, which can block arteries to the brain and cause a stroke.

• High blood cholesterol — People with high blood cholesterol have an increased risk for stroke. Also, it appears that low HDL (“good cholesterol”) is a risk factor for stroke in men, but more data are needed to verify its effect in women. 

• Poor diet — Diets high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can raise blood cholesterol levels. Diets high in sodium (salt) can contribute to increased blood pressure. Diets with excess calories can contribute to obesity. Also, a diet containing five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day may reduce the risk of stroke.

• Physical inactivity and obesity — Being inactive, obese or both can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Go on a brisk walk, take the stairs and do whatever you can to make your life more active. Try to get a total of at least 30 minutes of activity on most or all days. Learn more tips for a heart-healthy lifestyle.

What to do if you think you’re having a stroke

Always remember to call 9-1-1 at the first sign of a stroke. An easy way to recognize the signs and symptoms of stroke are to remember FAST:

F = Face:  If one side of the face or mouth is drooping, or if sight is blurred, call 9-1-1.

A = Arm:  When an individuals holds his or her arms out front of the body, does one arm drift down or seem weaker than the other? Is one leg weaker than the other? If so, call 9-1-1.

S= Speech:  If speech is slurred, or if an individual is not making sense when speaking, call 9-1-1.

T= Time:  Immediately call 911 and document the time when the person first exhibited the signs and symptoms of stroke. Remember, time is of the essence when you're having a stroke.

Let’s all make sure we take time this summer to learn the signs and symptoms of stroke. And don’t overdo it on the hotdogs and hamburgers at your Memorial Day picnic. It’s never too late to choose a healthy lifestyle to reduce your own risk for stroke.

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