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Stroke Prevention & Risk Factors

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel bringing blood and oxygen to the brain gets blocked or ruptures. When this happens, brain cells don't get the blood that they need. Deprived of oxygen, nerve cells stop working and die within minutes. Then, the part of the body they control cannot function either.

How do you recognize a stroke?

Getting to the hospital for emergency services is THE most important thing. Early recognition and prompt arrival at the nearest Emergency Department enables the physicians to provide life saving treatments and/or medications if appropriate. Don't ignore these warning signs, even if they go away. A quick and easy way to spot a stroke and to educate the public is by using the acronym BE FAST:

What types of strokes are there?

Ischemic Stroke occurs when blood vessels to the brain become narrowed or clogged with fatty deposits called plaque, cutting off blood flow to brain cells. High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for ischemic stroke that you can change.

Hemorrhagic Stroke happens when a blood vessel ruptures in or near the brain, and blood collects in the brain tissue. This is toxic for the brain tissue and will cause the cells in that area to weaken and die.

How is stroke diagnosed?

The most important factor is to get someone experiencing stroke symptoms to the hospital as soon as possible. Diagnosis can involve various factors including review of medical history, physical and neurological examination, laboratory blood tests, CT or MRI scan or other diagnostic tests.

How are strokes treated?

Acute treatment is the immediate treatment given by a healthcare team when a stroke happens and can include clot bursting drugs, blood pressure medication and other drugs to treat brain swelling that sometimes occurs after stroke. The goal of acute treatment is to keep the amount of brain injury as small as possible. Depending on the type and severity of the stroke surgery may be required.

Are the effects of stroke permanent?

The effects of stroke may be permanent, depending on how many cells are lost, where they are in the brain, and other factors. Timing is important so dial 9-1-1 as soon as symptoms appear.

Stroke Prevention & Risk Factors

Up to 80% of strokes can be prevented. There are risk factors that are beyond your control that can increase your risk for stroke such as age, sex, and ethnicity. But there are many risk factors that can be changed such as high blood pressure, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, lack of exercise, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, physical activity, and obesity.

Stroke Risk Factors You Can Control, Treat and Improve

Keep your stroke risks low with regular checkups and treatment for these conditions if you have them.

Learn about Risk Factors You Can Control

Stroke Risk Factors That Are Not Within Your Control

You can't control some risk factors, but knowing that they exist may help motivate you to work harder on the ones you can change.

Additional Factors That May Be Linked to Higher Stroke Risks

Whether your risks are related to changeable factors or are primarily outside of your control, you can benefit your heart and your brain with healthy lifestyle choices.

Risk Factors that can be changed, treated, or controlled:
  • High blood pressure. High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke and the most important controllable risk factor for stroke. Know your blood pressure and have it checked at least once every two years. If it's high, talk to your doctor about how to manage it.
  • Smoking/tobacco use. Smoking damages blood vessel walls, speeds up the clogging of arteries, raises blood pressure and makes the heart work harder. Smoking doubles the risk of stroke. Second-hand smoke is just as dangerous so avoid exposure.
  • Diabetes mellitus. People with diabetes are four times more likely to have a stroke than are people who do not have the disease, mainly because many people with diabetes have health problems that are also stroke risk factors. Work with your doctor to manage diabetes.
  • Carotid or other artery disease. The carotid arteries in your neck supply most of the blood to your brain. A carotid artery damaged by a fatty build up of plague inside the artery wall may become blocked by a blood clot, causing a stroke.
  • Atrial fibrillation. This is caused when the two upper chambers of the heart (atria) beat rapidly and unpredictably, producing an irregular heartbeat. Afib raises stroke risk because it allows blood to pool in the heart and form clots which can be carried to the brain. FAQs about AFib (PDF)
  • Alcohol use. Drinking large amounts of alcohol may increase your risk for stroke.
  • Illegal drug use.
  • Other heart disease.
  • High blood cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fatty substance in the blood that the human body makes on its own but it also comes from fat in foods. High levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream can clog arteries and cause a stroke or heart attack.
  • Poor diet.
  • Physical inactivity and obesity.
Risk Factors that cannot be changed:
  • Increasing age. Stroke affects people of all ages. But the older you are, the greater your risk for stroke.
  • Heredity (family history). People whose close blood relations have had a stroke have a higher risk of stroke.
  • Race. African Americans and Hispanic Americans have a higher risk of disability or death from stroke.
  • Sex (gender). In most age groups, more men than women have stroke, but more women die from stroke.
  • Prior stroke, TIA or heart attack. Someone who has already had a stroke is at a higher risk to experience another.