Strokes have sometimes been called “brain attacks,” an event similar to a heart attack in the brain. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to a part of the brain is interrupted, causing oxygen deprivation and death of brain cells in that area. According to the National Stroke Foundation, someone has a stroke about every 40 seconds in the United States, and someone dies from a stroke about once every 4 minutes. Roughly two-thirds of people who suffer a stroke will have some type of residual disability after recovery.
Stroke can happen to anyone, no matter the age, but there are certain risk factors that increase your chances of having one. Some, like age and family history, cannot be changed, but others can be managed, reduced, or avoided altogether to help reduce your risk. Here’s what you should know about common stroke risk factors and what you can do to mitigate them.
Personal characteristics that raise your risk of stroke
Genetics and family history play a significant role in your health and risk of stroke. The CDC states that heredity likely contributes to several medical conditions that increase stroke risk factors such as sickle cell disease and hypertension. Family history goes much deeper than simply passing on disease characteristics, however; many family members also share environmental and behavioral similarities, such as poor nutritional habits, that further increase their risk of stroke.
Other personal characteristics out of your control that increase your risk of stroke include:
- Race/ethnicity. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Alaska natives have a higher incidence of stroke than Asians and non-Hispanic whites.
- Age. Your risk of stroke doubles every 10 years after age 55.
- Sex. Men are more likely to suffer a stroke, but women are more likely to die from one.
- Prior history of stroke. If you have already had a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke,” you’re at greater risk for another stroke.
Medical conditions that contribute to your risk of stroke
There are several common health conditions that increase your risk of stroke. If you have any of the following diseases or conditions, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to keep them well controlled.
- High blood pressure. Hypertension is the leading cause of stroke, but it can be effectively controlled with medication and lifestyle changes. According to the National Institutes of Health, your risk increases if your blood pressure is consistently above 120/80.
- Diabetes. The presence of diabetes, even if it is well controlled, increases your risk of stroke. Diabetes often accompanies other stroke risk factors such as obesity, hypertension, and high cholesterol.
- High cholesterol. People with high cholesterol may have a waxy buildup in the arteries leading to the brain and other organs, causing narrowing and increasing the risk of stroke.
- Heart disease. Several heart disorders, including coronary artery disease, valve defects, atrial fibrillation, and other cardiac arrhythmias increase the risk of clot formation that may lead to stroke.
Lifestyle factors that increase the likelihood of stroke
Unlike heredity and medical history, lifestyle factors are completely under your control. You can take steps today to lower your risk of stroke by eliminating these personal behavior and lifestyle factors that contribute to stroke:
- Smoking and tobacco use. Cigarette smoking doubles your risk of ischemic stroke and quadruples your risk for hemorrhagic stroke (bleeding in the brain). Smoking contributes to high blood pressure and atherosclerosis, a fatty buildup in the carotid arteries that lead to the brain. It may also cause damage to the blood vessels. If you smoke, ask your doctor to help you quit.
- Poor diet. A diet high in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol increase your risk of stroke and may lead to obesity.
- Sedentary lifestyle. A lack of exercise contributes to many of the conditions that increase your risk of stroke, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week for adults, but you should always get your doctor’s permission before starting a new exercise program.
- Excess alcohol consumption. Drinking too much can raise your blood pressure and triglyceride level, both of which increase your risk of stroke. The CDC recommends no more than one drink per day for women, two drinks per day for men.
If you are concerned about your risk of stroke, the National Institutes of Health Institute for Neurological Diseases and Stroke has prepared a risk assessment tool that predicts your probability for having a stroke within the next 10 years.