Strokes occur when blood flow to your brain stops or is disrupted.

This happens due to a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel leaks or bursts (hemorrhagic stroke).

A burst brain aneurysm, which is a bulge or “ballooning” in the wall of an artery, is an example of a hemorrhagic stroke. Fatty deposits — called plaque — building up in blood vessels are a main cause of ischemic stroke.

Certain conditions, such as high blood pressure or heart disease, increase your risk for a stroke, as do certain genetic factors. Smoking cigarettes nearly doubles it.

You can reduce your chances of having a stroke by knowing your risk factors and taking steps to improve certain areas of your health.

Are you at risk for a stroke? Take our quick 8-question assessment to find out.

What are the risk factors for stroke?

Risk factors for stroke include certain conditions, lifestyle behaviors and a person’s genetics.

Health conditions that increase your risk of stroke

  • High blood pressure – High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke. It occurs when pressure of the blood in your arteries and other blood vessels is too high. High blood pressure often doesn’t have discerning symptoms so it’s important to get it checked by a medical professional regularly.
  • Heart disease – Common heart disorders, such as coronary artery disease where plaque builds up in the arteries, increase your risk of stroke. Other conditions like valve defects, irregular heartbeats and enlarged heart chambers can cause blood clots that might break loose, leading to a stroke.
  • Diabetes – This disease causes sugars to build up in the blood, which prevents oxygen from getting to various parts of the body, including the brain.
  • High cholesterol – Too much cholesterol narrows the arteries, which can lead to stroke and other dangerous health conditions. A simple blood test can let your doctor know if your cholesterol levels are high.
  • Obesity – Excess body fat can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol, making obesity a major factor in strokes.

What can I do to prevent stroke?

Many of the conditions listed above can be managed through changes to your lifestyle. By lessening the impact of these illnesses, you can reduce your risk for stroke. Changes in your life that lower your chances of having a stroke include:

  • Close up of person smoking cigaretteSmoking – This habit almost doubles your risk of stroke. Nicotine and carbon monoxide damage the cardiovascular system, paving the way for stroke.
  • Physical inactivity – Not getting enough exercise leads to many conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes, that increase chances of having a stroke.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption – Drinking too much alcohol (more than one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men) can also increase blood pressure as well as triglycerides, a form of fat that can harden arteries.
  • Illegal drug use – IV drug use has a high risk of stroke from blood clots because substances like cocaine and methamphetamine are closely linked to strokes.
  • Birth control pill – While oral contraceptives are common and relatively safe, women who use the pill should be aware it can increase their risk of stroke if they have additional risk factors, such as smoking, obesity or a prior history of stroke.
  • Close up of woman eating a salad at the table with a glass of waterUnhealthy diet – Diets high in unsaturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol have been linked to strokes and other related conditions. Eating too much salt (sodium) can increase blood pressure.

Genetics play a role in stroke risk

While there’s a lot you can do to decrease your chances of having a stroke, you can’t prevent them completely because of factors out of your control. These include:

  • Age – Each decade over 55, your chance of having a stroke doubles. However, strokes are still common for adults of all ages.
  • Race – Certain races and ethnicities have increased risks of strokes for a variety of reasons. For example, African Americans have a much higher risk of death or disability from stroke.
  • Prior stroke history – Having one stroke puts you at greater risk for a second one.
  • Family history – If family members have had strokes, then your chances of experiencing one increase.

It’s important to know these genetic factors to determine your overall risk. However, focusing on the lifestyle changes you can make will have the most dramatic impact on lowering chances of suffering a stroke and its debilitating effects.

Learn more about stroke

Learn more about stroke

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