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Know Your Risk of Stroke

While some stroke risk factors are related to heredity, others are linked to medical conditions and your lifestyle. While you cannot change your family history, some risk factors can be modified with the help of a medical professional.  According to the American Heart Association, here is what you should know:

Risk factors you cannot change:

  • Age — The chance of having a stroke increases after the age of 55. While stroke is more common among the elderly, there are still many people under the age of 65 who have strokes.
  • Heredity (family history) and race — If a parent, grandparent, sister or brother has had a stroke, your risk increases.  In part because they have higher risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, African Americans are at greater risk of death from a stroke than Caucasians.
  • Sex (gender) — Stroke is more common in men than in women in most age groups.  However, more women than men die of stroke. Women are at special risk due to pregnancy and the use of birth control pills.
  • Prior stroke, TIA or heart attack — If you have had a stroke, your risk of having another is much higher than someone who has never had one. Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are stroke-like symptoms which usually disappear within a few minutes. Anyone who has had one or more TIAs is much more likely to have a stroke than someone who hasn't.

Getting treatment for a TIA can reduce your risk of a major stroke. A TIA is a medical emergency and followed up immediately with a healthcare professional.  You should know the symptoms of a stroke or “brain attack” so you can respond quickly.

If you've had a heart attack, you're at higher risk of having a stroke, too.

Stroke risk factors that can be modified

  • High blood pressure — The leading cause of stoke is high blood pressure. It is the most important controllable risk factor.
  • Smoking — The nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke damage the cardiovascular system.  The risk of stroke increases greatly when smoking is combined with the use of oral contraceptives.
  • Diabetes mellitus — Although diabetes can be treated, just having it increases the risk of stroke. Many diabetics also have high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and are overweight. These conditions further increase their stroke risk.
  • Carotid or other artery disease — The carotid arteries in your neck supply blood to your brain.  A carotid artery narrowed by atherosclerosis (plaque buildups in artery walls) may become blocked by a blood clot.  Peripheral artery disease is the narrowing of blood vessels carrying blood to leg and arm muscles. It's caused by fatty buildups of plaque in artery walls.  People with peripheral artery disease have a higher risk of carotid artery disease, which raises their stroke risk.
  • Atrial fibrillation — This heart rhythm disorder raises the risk for stroke because blood can pool and clot in the heart.  A stroke results if a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain.
  • Other heart disease — People with coronary heart disease or heart failure have a higher risk of stroke than those with hearts that work normally.  Dilated cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart), heart valve disease and some types of congenital heart defects also raise the risk of stroke.
  • Sickle cell disease (also called sickle cell anemia) — This genetic disorder that mainly affects African-American and Hispanic children causes "sickled" red blood cells that are less able to carry oxygen to the body's tissues and organs.  These cells also tend to stick to blood vessel walls, which can block arteries to the brain and cause a stroke.
  • High blood cholesterol — People with high blood cholesterol have an increased risk for stroke.  It also appears that low HDL (“good”) cholesterol  is a risk factor for stroke in men, but more research is needed to determine its effect in women.
  • Poor diet — Diets high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can raise blood cholesterol levels.   Diets high in sodium (salt) can contribute to increased blood pressure.  Diets with excess calories can contribute to obesity.
  • Physical inactivity and obesity — Being inactive, obese or both can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Other potential risk factors

  • Alcohol abuse — Alcohol abuse can lead to many medical problems, including stroke.
  • Drug abuse — Drugs that are abused, including cocaine, amphetamines and heroin, have been associated with an increased risk of stroke.  Strokes caused by drug abuse are often seen in younger people.

Here is a link to a Stroke Assessment  that can be printed and filled out.