Stroke Risk Factors

There are a number of factors linked to an increased risk of stroke or recurrent stroke, including having heart disease or a prior TIA or stroke. Some of them (being male, African American, Hispanic, or older than age 55) are factors you cannot change. Others you can, like high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, high cholesterol, and obesity or inactivity.

By changing some habits, having regular medical care, and following your doctor's instructions, you can make changes to manage your risk factors. Knowing what to focus on is the first step.

Medical Risk Factors:

High blood pressure. This is the leading cause of stroke, so it is important to know your blood pressure, and have it checked regularly. Normal blood pressure is below 120/80. If you have high blood pressure, work with your health care provider to lower it with lifestyle changes or medication.

Diabetes. Having diabetes more than doubles your risk of stroke. Work with your health care provider to manage the disease.

High cholesterol. High cholesterol increases the risk of blocked arteries and if an artery to the brain becomes blocked a stroke can result.

Carotid or other artery disease. The carotid arteries in your neck supply more of the blood to your brain. A fatty buildup of plaque inside the artery wall may become blocked by a blood clot and cause a stroke.

Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). TIAs produce stroke-like symptoms, but most have no lasting effects. Recognizing and treating TIAs can reduce the risk of a major stroke.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) or heart disease. In AFib, the heart’s upper chambers quiver rather than beat in an organized, rhythmic way. This can cause the blood to pool and clot, which increases the risk of stroke. Having AFib increases the risk of stroke by five times. People with other heart disease also have a high risk of stroke.

Certain blood disorders. A high red blood cell count makes clots more likely, raising the risk of stroke. Sickle cell anemia increases stroke risk because blood cells can stick to vessel walls and may block arteries.

Sleep apnea. Sleep disordered breathing contributes to the risk of stroke. The more severe the apnea, the greater the risk.

Lifestyle Risk Factors:

Smoking. Smoking damages blood vessels, which can lead to blockages and cause stroke. Don’t smoke and avoid second hand smoke.

Physical inactivity and obesity. Being in active, obese, or both, can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Excessive alcohol intake. Drinking more than an average of one drink per day for women or more than two drinks per day for men can raise blood pressure and increase stroke risk. Binge drinking can also lead to stroke.

Illegal drug use. Drugs, including cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and heroin are all associated with an increased risk of stroke.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors:

Increasing age. Stroke affects people of all ages, but risk increases as we age.

Gender. Women have a higher lifetime risk of stroke than men do. Use of birth control pills and pregnancy pose special stroke risks for women.

Heredity and race. People with a family history of stroke also carry a higher risk. African Americans have a higher risk of death and disability from stroke than whites. Hispanic Americans also have a higher risk of stroke.

Prior stroke. Someone who has suffered a stroke is at higher risk for having another one.

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