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Stroke Risk Factors

Know your risks and what you can and cannot control

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Risk factors are traits and lifestyle habits that increase your risk of stroke. Some risk factors can be controlled, others cannot. In addition, there are specific risks to different demographic groups, including: Children, Women and African Americans. While there are risk factors that you cannot control, there are also risk factors that you can control. 

Learn about risk factors that you can control as well as those that you cannot control. By paying close attention to these factors, you may be able to reduce your risk for stroke. 

Risk factors you cannot control

  • Increasing age. The older you get, the more likely you are to have a stroke.
  • Gender. Men have a greater risk of stroke than women; however, more women than men die of stroke.
  • Heredity and Race. Your risk of stroke is greater if a parent, grandparent, sister or brother has had stroke. African Americans have a much higher risk than Caucasians do, in part because they have a higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
  • Family history of stroke. Just as you can't control your age, sex and race, you can’t control your family history. If your brother, father, mother or sister have had a stroke, the risk is greater that you may have one. If you’ve had a stroke, you’re at a much higher risk of having another one.

Medical risk factors to control

Atrial fibrillation raises the risk for stroke because the heart’s upper chambers quiver instead of beating effectively. This allows the blood to pool and clot. A stroke will result if a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain. People with coronary artery disease or heart failure are more than twice as likely to have a stroke than those with no heart disease. Dilated cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart), heart valve disease and some types of congenital heart defects also raise the risk of stroke.
The carotid arteries in your neck supply blood to your brain. A carotid artery narrowed by fatty deposits from atherosclerosis may become blocked by a blood clot. Peripheral artery disease is the narrowing of blood vessels carrying blood to leg and arm muscles. People with peripheral artery disease have a higher risk of carotid disease, which raises their risk of stroke.
A high red blood cell count thickens the blood and makes forming blood clots more likely which raises the risk of stroke. Doctors treat this problem by removing blood cells or prescribing drugs such as blood thinners. Sickle cell anemia is a genetic disorder that mainly affects African Americans. Sickled red blood cells are less able to carry oxygen to tissue and organs and they also tend to stick to blood vessel walls. This can block arteries to the brain and cause a stroke.
Diabetes is controllable but having it greatly increases the risk of having a stroke. If you have diabetes, follow your physician’s instructions for treating it. Make sure your blood glucose level is under control, eat a healthy diet and never stop taking your medication without first talking to your physician.
Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance in the body. A high level of cholesterol in the blood increases your risk of stroke. Following a sensible diet and seeking treatment from your physician can reduce your cholesterol.
Also called the “silent killer,” high blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke. It’s referred to as the “silent killer” because it usually has no symptoms. Know your blood pressure and have it checked at least once a year - or more often if it is above the normal range. (It should be lower than 140/90 mmHg.) If you have high blood pressure make sure you are seen by your physician on a regular basis.
TIAs are mini-strokes that produce stroke-like symptoms but no permanent damage. It is very important to recognize and treat a TIA as they often occur months or even years prior to a stroke. TIAs are usually treated with drugs that keep clots from forming.

Lifestyle risk factors to control

Drinking in excess raises blood pressure and can cause heart failure and lead to stroke. Women should not have more than one alcoholic drink a day on average. Men should not have an average of more than two drinks a day. If you don’t drink, don’t start; and if you do drink, do so in moderation.
IV (intravenous) drug abuse carries a high risk of infections of the heart and stroke. Cocaine use has been linked to strokes and heart attacks. If you feel you have a drug abuse problem see your physician for treatment.
Being inactive, obese or both can increase your risk of stroke. Regular physical activity helps reduce your risk of stroke. Strive to get 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity on a daily basis.
We all have stress but we feel it in different amounts and react in different ways. Find healthy ways to handle stress. If you think your reaction to stress may be hurting your health or increasing your risk factors, see your physician for ways to deal with your stress.
People who smoke cigarettes or cigars have a much higher risk of having a stroke. Regular exposure to other people’s smoke, even if you don’t smoke, increases your risk of having a stroke, too. If you smoke, take steps to quit. When you stop smoking, no matter how long or how much you’ve smoked, your risk of stroke starts to drop.
Black woman and daughter taking a selfie

African Americans and Stroke

African Americans have almost twice the risk of first-ever stroke compared with Caucasians, and African Americans aged 35–54 years old have four times the relative risk for stroke. This means that African Americans are affected by stroke more than any other group. In addition, one half of all African American women will die from stroke or heart disease.

Several factors increase the risk for stroke. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of having a stroke. You can’t control some factors, but you can modify, treat or control others to lower your risk.

Not all of the reasons are clear but some factors include a higher rate of the following:

  • High blood pressure. This is the number one risk factor for stroke and 1 in 3 African Americans suffer from high blood pressure.
  • Diabetes. People with diabetes have a higher stroke risk.
  • Sickle cell anemia. This is a genetic disorder that mainly affects African Americans. “Sickled” red blood cells are less able to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues and organs and tend to stick to blood vessel walls. This can block arteries to the brain and cause a stroke.
  • Obesity. African Americans have a higher incidence of obesity than Caucasians.
  • Smoking. African Americans also have a higher incidence of smoking than Caucasians.

You can change many conditions through diet and exercise, others may need medication. The best defense is knowledge. Talk to your doctor to find out if you have any of these health risks. You don’t have to be a statistic! Be aware of your risk factors and work with your doctor to reduce, control or prevent as many risk factors as you can.