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Stroke Risk Factors

Meaningful lifestyle changes and good medical care are the first steps to reducing your chance of stroke.

Stroke Risk Factors You Can Change

Take charge of your brain health by focusing on positive lifestyle changes you can make in many areas.

  • Blood Pressure – As the leading cause of stroke, high blood pressure is also the most controllable. You can keep your blood pressure within an optimal range by eating a well-balanced diet, staying active, maintaining healthy weight, using alcohol in moderation and, if needed, adding medication.
  • Cigarette Smoking – If you smoke, quit. If you haven't started, don't. Nicotine and carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke damages the heart and the body's network of blood vessels.
  • Diabetes – The presence of this treatable condition increases your risk of stroke. People with diabetes often have additional stroke-risk factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excess weight. Reduce your risk by exercising regularly, maintaining healthy weight, using alcohol in moderation and eating a well-balanced diet that limits sugar, adds green and leafy vegetables and enough fiber and avoids fatty foods.
  • Diet and Nutrition– A diet high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can raise your cholesterol levels. With too much LDL (bad) cholesterol circulating in your blood, plaque can build up inside the walls of arteries that feed both the heart and brain, which increases your risk for heart attack and stroke. High levels of HDL (good) cholesterol seem to protect against heart attack, while low levels of HDL may increase the risk of heart disease and, therefore, stroke. Diet-related issues include:
    • Sodium/Salt – If you consume a lot of salt, you're at greater risk for high blood pressure and stroke. Reduce your sodium intake by removing the salt shaker from your table, not adding salt to your food, checking food labels for sodium content and following doctors' and dietitians' orders for restricting sodium. Dietitians can provide a list of foods to avoid.
  • Activity and Exercise – When you're inactive, obese or both, you increase your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recommend at least 30 minutes of activity on most or all days. Exercise can be as simple as parking your car farthest from office or store entrances and taking stairs instead of elevators. Healthy activity can be easy and affordable. Just take a walk!

Controllable Health Conditions That Can Trigger Stroke

Other manageable health conditions that can lead to stroke include:

  • Carotid Artery Disease (Stenosis) – Plaque build-up in the carotid arteries (located on either side of the neck) that supply blood to the brain can lead to blood clots and blockages that contribute to stroke.
  • Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) – Narrowing of blood vessels that supply the arms and legs increases the risk of carotid artery disease and stroke.
  • Atrial Fibrillation (Afib) – An uneven or "quivering" heartbeat may allow blood to pool and form a clot that can break away and enter the bloodstream. A clot that lodges in the artery leading to the brain can cause a stroke.
  • Other Heart Disease – You're at higher risk for stroke if you're also diagnosed with coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, enlarged heart or heart valve disease.

Stroke Risk Factors You Can't Change

The better you manage the controllable risk factors for stroke, the greater positive impact you may have on some things you can't do much to change.

  • Age – The chance of stroke doubles for each decade of life after age 55. While stroke may be more common in the very old, many people under age 65 also have strokes.
  • Heredity/Genetics and Race – Your risk increases if a parent, grandparent, sister or brother has had a stroke. Caucasians are more likely to survive a stroke than African Americans, who also tend to have higher rates of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. Sickle cell anemia—a genetic disorder primarily affecting African-American and Hispanic children—alters the shape of red blood cells, making them less able to carry oxygen to tissues and organs. When the altered cells stick to blood vessel walls, they may block arteries to the brain and cause a stroke. Some types of congenital (at birth) heart conditions may contribute to stroke.
  • Gender – Men of almost any age are more likely than women to have a stroke. Men are also more likely to survive a stroke. Special stroke risks for women include pregnancy, as well as certain medications such as birth control pills.
  • Previous Stroke, TIA or Heart Attack – If you've already had a stroke, TIA (transient ischemic attack; temporary shortage of blood and oxygen to the brain) or heart event, you're at many times greater risk for stroke than a person who has not.

Learn more about stroke in our online Health Library.