You don’t have to be old to have a stroke. Anyone can have one. But some people are more at risk for stroke than others.
Your risk of having a stroke depends on many factors. That’s why they’re called risk factors. Some risk factors are predetermined, and you can’t do anything about them: your family history, for example. Other risk factors are within your control, such as what you eat. That’s why 80 percent of strokes are considered to be preventable. You can change things about the way you live and reduce your risk of having a stroke.
Talk with your doctor about all of your risk factors. Ask for help to reduce the ones you can.
Risk Factors You Can Control or Treat
Most strokes, like other forms of cardiovascular disease, are caused by atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) in the arteries that carry blood throughout your cardiovascular system to key organs—your heart, legs, kidneys and brain. When the plaque builds up to the point of blocking or restricting the blood flow to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
Most of the risk factors you can control for stroke are the same as the risk factors for heart attack and peripheral artery disease (PAD) because they contribute to the atherosclerosis disease process. The good news is taht the atherosclerosis disease process is one you can help to slow down.
How many times have you heard “take your medicine” or “eat right and exercise”? Well, you’re about to hear it again. Life is full of things you can’t control, including some of the risk factors for stroke. But you can greatly reduce your risk of stroke, and for that matter heart attack and PAD, by making the decision to live a healthy lifestyle.
Consider the following risk factors that you can control to see where you might want to make some changes:
- Blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the greatest risk factors for stroke. Cutting back on salt, exercising and taking medications are all ways to lower your blood pressure. But don’t try to figure it out on your own. Talk to your doctor about treating your high blood pressure. You may need medication. Learn more about high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) here.
- Diet. The foods you choose to eat are another factor that determines your risk for stroke. A balanced diet low in saturated fat and trans fat and high in monounsaturated fat, omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can slow the build-up of plaque in your arteries and reduce your risk of stroke. Learn more about Nutrition, Diet & Your Heart here.
- Cardiovascular disease. If you have been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease and have narrowed or blocked arteries in one part of the body, then it's likely that other arteries are narrowed or blocked with plaque, too. The brain, just like the heart, can be cut off from the blood it needs, causing a stroke. Learn about coronary artery disease, or CAD, here.
- Heart disease. The presence of heart disease and atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) raises the risk of stroke. The fast and irregular heartbeat of AFib can cause blood to pool and clot in the heart. This raises the risk that a blood clot will break loose, travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Talk with your doctor about treatment options for your heart disease so that you can reduce your risk of stroke. Learn more about atrial fibrillation and how it can be treated here.
- Sickle cell disease. People who inherit sickle cell disease are at higher risk for stroke. Blood cells affected by sickle cell disease are stickier and can attach to the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. While there’s no cure for this disease, there are some treatment options for reducing symptoms and complications.
- Where you live. Is it time to move? Some evidence suggests that more strokes occur in the southeastern United States: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee. No one knows why for sure, but studies continue to look at other factors in the area, such as rural populations and race.
Risk Factors You Can’t Control
Some risk factors cannot be controlled, but it’s good to keep them in mind as you weigh all of your risks for and make a plan to reduce them:
- Age. People of any age can have a stroke, including children. But the older you are, the higher your risk for stroke. Nearly 75 percent of all strokes happen to people over 65.
- Family history. If someone in your family had a stroke, then you are at greater risk.
- Race. People who are Hispanic, African American or Asian/Pacific Islander are more likely to have a stroke than someone who is Caucasian.
- A previous stroke, TIA (mini-stroke) or heart attack. Your chance of stroke is greater if you’ve already had one (including a mini-stroke) – or if you’ve had a heart attack.
Learn More About Stroke
The more you know and understand about your risk factors and the symptoms of stroke, the more prepared you will be to take care of yourself and the people yoo love. A stroke is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention, which is why it's important to know the symptoms and when to call for help. Click here to review common stroke symptoms and how the American Stroke Association is helping all of us know when to Act F.A.S.T. to Identify a Stroke in Progress.