Risk factors are things about you or lifestyle habits that increase the risk of disease. While you cannot control your age, gender or heredity, many of the risk factors for stroke are manageable. And, since most of the risk factors for stroke are the same as for heart disease, you really get double the benefit by reducing your stroke risks. Risk factors that increase your chance of developing a stroke include:
- Alcohol/drug/tobacco abuse
- Atrial fibrillation
- Diabetes mellitus
- High blood cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- History of TIAs [Transient Ischemic Attack or "mini-stroke"]
- Overweight or obesity
- Sickle cell anemia
- Sleep apnea
It is important that people with risk factors for stroke or heart disease to work with their health care providers to improve their risks. For example, if you have high blood cholesterol, a change in diet or medications can improve your cholesterol level and reduce your risk of stroke. Work with your health care provider to reduce or control as many risk factors as you can.
What can I do on my own?
It used to be believed that if you have a history of stroke in your family, you were destined to have a stroke. This is not necessarily true. While there may be a genetic component to heart disease and stroke, there are lots of things you can do to reduce your risk factors. Some are easier than others. You should check with your health care provider to help you identify your risks for stroke and to help you reduce those risks.
The following are some things you can do on your own:
- Don't use tobacco. Tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of serious illness such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic lung disease.
- Be physically active. Physical activity can reduce blood pressure, reduce blood cholesterol, help with weight loss, and reduce the risk of developing diabetes.
- Eat healthy foods. Foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol contribute to atherosclerosis, a primary cause of heart attack and stroke. Lots of salt in the diet can also make high blood pressure worse for some people.
- Watch your weight. Obesity is a major risk factor for stroke. Work with your health care provider to find a healthy approach to weight loss that will work for you, improve your health and reduce your risks for stroke.
- Avoid excessive alcohol. Too much of anything is not good for you. While one or two drinks may be beneficial in increasing "good" HDL cholesterol, too much alcohol can contribute to high blood pressure, excess weight and diabetes.
What else can I do?
Visit your doctor or other health care provider regularly. Your doctor can help you identify your risk factors for stroke. Regular check-ups gives your healthcare provider the opportunity to evaluate your progress towards reducing your risks by checking your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes, and other risk factors. Your doctor is an important partner in helping you to identify risks for stroke and helping you move towards a healthier lifestyle.
What is a Stroke?
A Stroke is a disruption of blood flow to a part of the brain. This causes the brain cells in the area beyond the disruption to die because they do not get the oxygen they need from the blood. A stroke can be cause by either a blockage (ischemic stroke) or by a rupture of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke). Most strokes are caused by a blockage. When a blockage is the cause of the stroke, it can be caused by a blood clot or by a particle of other material. An ischemic (Iss-kee-mic) stroke is similar to a heart attack, but occurs in the brain. It is sometimes referred to as a "brain attack".
What are the symptoms of a Stroke?
Stroke symptoms vary widely, depending on the area of the brain where the disruption has occurred. When brain cells are injured by a stroke and can't work, the area of the body they control cannot work either. A stroke can affect the senses, movement of the body, speech, and the ability to understand speech. Any sudden symptoms like these need immediate medical evaluation. Examples of stroke symptoms include:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm of leg, especially on one side of the body.
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause.
What is the difference between a TIA and a Stroke?
Sometimes people experience stroke-like symptoms that only last a very short time, sometimes only a few minutes. These may be due to a "mini-stroke" called a Transient Ischemic Attack or TIA. TIAs are important warning signs of strokes. Many people ignore these warnings because the symptoms get better very quickly. This can be dangerous because TIAs can progress to a stroke that does not get better. Often, there are treatments that can be started to prevent a TIA from becoming a stroke, or at least to reduce the chance of a stroke happening.
What should I do if I am having stroke-like symptoms?
The key to stroke care and recovery is early detection and medical attention. Far too often, stroke sufferers do not receive medical care because the warning signs, which may last only a few minutes, are ignored. If you or someone you know is experiencing stroke -like symptoms, you should call 911. An ambulance can take you to a hospital that can treat strokes. It is important to have your symptoms evaluated at the hospital, even if they go away before you get there. There are medications available for treating some strokes which can help prevent disability caused by strokes. While not everyone will be able to receive these special medications, the quicker you are evaluated, the more likely this treatment will be an option for you.