We can’t predict the timeline for when a stroke may affect a particular person. But we can definitely spread awareness about risk factors that are likely to increase the chances of having a stroke. When you have more knowledge about these risk factors, you can determine which ones may be the most relevant to you. You can take charge of the treatable risk factors, and you can be prepared with what signs to look for when a stroke is happening. Above all else, if you or someone you know starts to show signs of a stroke, know that a stroke is a medical emergency. Call 9-1-1 and get to the hospital in order to save brain cells and save a life.
Let’s talk about stroke risk factors that none of us can control. Though you can’t erase these factors from potentially impacting your life, you can use your increased awareness to empower yourself and be prepared in case stroke symptoms do make an appearance in your life.
Families pass down certain traits through the generations, and we inherit genes that may make us more prone to certain diseases. Also, it is likely that family members may adopt similar habits and routines as those who came before them, which may include things like inactivity or smoking. If someone in your family has had a stroke, it makes it more likely that you could have one, too - especially if that person is your sibling, parent, or grandparent.
The older we get, the greater our chance of having a stroke. In fact, the chance of stroke doubles every 10 years past age 55. But remember, people much younger can have strokes, too - including babies.
Women tend to have more strokes than men, and face more deadly responses to having a stroke. They also tend to have strokes when they are older, which may be related to women generally living longer than men. Some of the gender discrepancy may also be related to hormonal factors that only women face: pregnancy, hormonal birth control, and hormonal supplements for menopause.
Populations with a higher risk include: African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, American Indians, and Alaskan Natives; their risk is higher than those in non-Hispanic Caucasian and Asian populations.
Prior TIA, stroke, or heart attack
A TIA (transient ischemic attack) is a warning sign for an upcoming stroke, and should be taken seriously: you are 10 times more likely to have a full stroke after experiencing a TIA. After having one stroke, you are also more likely to experience another one in your lifetime. If you have had a heart attack, the buildup and clogging of the arteries that caused it can also cause you to have a “brain attack” (a stroke).
Now that we’ve gotten those out of the way, let’s talk about the risk factors that you can take charge of. Talk to your doctor about your own personal health profile, so that you know which factors affect you. Once your doctor helps you to come up with a good plan for medications, diet, exercise, and/or smoking cessation, stick with the plan as carefully as you can. Remember that we don’t have a say over some risk factors, so the ones we can treat and manage are that much more critical. See related posts for healthy lifestyle tips that you can use while you navigate managing your risk factors.
High blood pressure
Hypertension (chronically high blood pressure) can result in too much force on the walls of your arteries. Over time, this pressure can cause hardening, thickening, and damage to the blood vessels, which can lead to a stroke (or a heart attack). Often, hypertension goes hand in hand with other risk factors that can also be controlled, such as diet and exercise. Luckily, high blood pressure is easy to detect, and relatively easy to control with medications and some lifestyle updates such as healthier diet and more exercise.
High blood cholesterol
When cholesterol is out of control (hyperlipidemia), it can build up and clog arteries with fatty deposits. As the blood vessels start to get clogged up, the blood can no longer flow freely and it gets blocked on its way to the brain and heart. Pieces of the fatty deposits can also break free and form clots which more quickly block off blood flow and can result in a stroke. Again, high cholesterol also goes hand in hand with other risk factors that can be managed, such as diet and exercise. Medications can also help manage high cholesterol.
Having type I or type II diabetes greatly increases your chances of having heart disease or stroke, especially as you get older (65 and up). Diabetes is another contributing factor to blood vessel disease, which can lead to stroke (or heart problems). Often there are other risk factors that go with type II diabetes (such as inactivity, poor dietary habits, and high blood pressure and cholesterol), making it even more important to take charge of these factors. Make sure to check your blood sugar regularly, and take medications consistently as prescribed.
Poor dietary habits
Eating too much of certain types of foods can increase your overall risk of stroke by impacting some of the other risk factors mentioned above. Foods with a lot of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol can increase your cholesterol levels. These include foods like: fatty beef, dark meat chicken, butter, fast food, crackers, cookies, lard, and shortening. Foods with a lot of sodium can increase your blood pressure. Some examples of these foods are: smoked meats, bacon, and canned entrees. Foods high in calories can increase obesity, which also contributes to other risk factors (diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol). Some examples of these foods are: sugary drinks, pizza, white bread, and pastries.
Being more sedentary or less active is linked to increased blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity. As we know, all of those factors increase the overall risk of stroke. Moderate-intensity activity levels can reduce your risk of stroke, and you don’t have to worry about starting a brand new, intensive plan. One way to get started (especially if you are mostly sedentary throughout your day) is to stand up more and sit less during the day. Some examples of moderate activity can be as simple as gardening, bicycling less than 10 miles an hour, walking briskly, and doing water aerobics.
Cigarette smoking damages the heart and blood vessels, which increases your chance of stroke. The nicotine in cigarettes increases your blood pressure, which puts more wear and tear on your blood vessels; the carbon monoxide from the smoke interferes with the amount of oxygen your blood carries to your organs and hardens the vessel walls. After only a year of being smoke-free, you are on your way to reducing your risk of heart disease (which impacts stroke risk) by 50%!
Heavy alcohol use
Drinking many alcoholic beverages daily increases your blood pressure and can harden your blood vessels - and you now know that all of these things contribute to an increased risk of stroke. General recommendations for alcohol limits are: 1 drink for women, and 2 drinks for men per day.
Check out other posts about healthy lifestyle tips to help you on your journey in preventing and treating stroke.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by the NEOFECT website is solely at your own risk.
- Natalie Miller, OTR/LNatalie is an occupational therapist and health writer based out of Richmond, VA. Natalie recently pivoted into the pediatric setting after spending eleven years working in adult neurorehabilitation.