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Risk factors for stroke and how to control them

An older couple hold hands as they walk down a trail with a black dog between them.

Many risk factors for stroke can be controlled.

You can't control every risk factor for stroke. For example, according to the American Stroke Association (ASA), a person's risk increases with age, when there's a family history of stroke or sometimes according to race. (Strokes are more common and more deadly for African Americans than for any other ethnic or racial group.)

However, it's important to know you can do something about most risk factors for stroke, the ASA notes.

Reduce your risk

Controllable risk factors for stroke include:

High blood pressure. This is the strongest risk factor for stroke, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). It damages blood vessels and contributes to hardened arteries. These changes can lead to a stroke if a blood clot blocks an artery or a burst blood vessel bleeds into the brain.

What you can do: Have your blood pressure checked regularly. If it's high, your doctor can help you lower it.

Smoking can cause a buildup of fatty substances in the carotid artery, which carries blood to your brain. Blockage of this artery is the leading cause of stroke in the United States, according to NINDS.

Smoking can also raise blood pressure, damage blood vessels and deprive the brain of oxygen.

What you can do: If you smoke, ask your doctor for help quitting.

Heart problems such as atrial fibrillation can raise the risk for stroke. Atrial fibrillation occurs in about 15% of people with strokes, according to the ASA. It causes the heart to beat irregularly, which may lead to blood clots. These clots can trigger a stroke if they block blood vessels that lead to the brain.

What you can do: Follow your doctor's instructions for controlling any heart problems you have.

Artery disease causes fatty deposits called plaque to build up in arteries. These plaques can cut off blood flow and trigger a stroke.

What you can do: Because cholesterol can contribute to artery problems, it's important to control it. If you're a younger adult, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says you should have your cholesterol measured once every five years. Then the frequency should be every year or two for men ages 45 to 65 and women 55 to 65. Annual screenings are recommended for adults over 65.

If you develop artery disease, your doctor may prescribe lifestyle changes or medicines to treat it.

Diabetes can raise stroke risk by damaging blood vessels. People with diabetes are also at higher risk for high blood pressure and cholesterol problems, raising their stroke risk even more.

What you can do: By treating diabetes, you can delay complications that raise your stroke risk. But simply having diabetes still increases your risk.

Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), or "warning strokes," cause temporary, strokelike symptoms that often warn that a major stroke is on the way.

TIA symptoms come on suddenly and may include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Confusion or trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
  • Severe headache of unknown cause.

What you can do: Seek medical help immediately if you experience symptoms of a TIA. Treatment can help prevent a full-blown stroke.

Blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia or a high red cell count, can raise a person's stroke risk by interfering with blood flow to the brain.

What you can do: If you have a blood disorder, follow your doctor's instructions for managing it.

Prior strokes. Once you've had one stroke, you're at high risk for having another one.

What you can do: Talk to your doctor about medicines and lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of future strokes.

Choose a healthy lifestyle

Many risk factors for stroke can be reduced simply by choosing a healthy lifestyle. That means exercising regularly, eating right and watching your weight. It also means knowing the risks of alcohol and drugs, both of which may increase your risk for stroke. Making healthy changes in your life today can help protect you from stroke later on.

Reviewed 12/5/2023

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