Every 40 seconds. That’s how often someone has a stroke in America.
A stroke, which occurs when blood vessels that transport oxygen to the brain are blocked or ruptured, is one of the leading causes of long-term disability in the country. Staying aware of how stroke risk factors — some well-known and some under the radar — affect your health is key to avoiding a future stroke. Here’s what you need to know to reduce your risk.
Understanding the Kinds of Risk Factors
Some risk factors are influenced by family history, gender and other things that are out of your hands. Others you can control.
Nonmodifiable Risk Factors
Risk factors that fall into this category are aspects of your life that you’re pretty much stuck with. These include:
Age. For both men and women, stroke risk increases with age. This may be true in part because older people are more likely to have other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, that increase their stroke risk.
Family history. If your grandparents, parents or siblings had a stroke, you have a greater risk of having one as well. This link could be due to genetics or simply because you have similar lifestyle habits.
Gender. Women are more likely to have a stroke — and die from it — than men are. Several things increase women’s stroke risk, such as having migraines, experiencing bodily and hormonal changes caused by pregnancy, taking birth control pills and undergoing hormone replacement therapy.
Race. Some groups have a higher risk of stroke because they’re also more likely to have other risk factors that contribute to stroke, such as high blood pressure and obesity.
Modifiable Risk Factors
There are stroke risk factors you can control. These are called modifiable risk factors, and they include:
- Diabetes. Diabetics’ blood sugar levels can fluctuate greatly. Increased blood sugar levels in the body lead to vascular changes that can weaken blood vessels.
Poor diet and lack of exercise. Diet and exercise are connected to stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. A healthy diet and regular physical activity can reduce your risk for these conditions — and, by extension, your stroke risk.
High blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both of these conditions can damage blood vessels and cause blockages that deprive the brain of oxygen and nutrients it needs to function.
Obesity. Excess weight can lead to inflammation that restricts blood flow throughout the body. As a result, the body’s cells — and vital organs like the brain — may not get all the oxygen they need, and stroke-causing blockages can form.
Smoking. Smoking can increase your blood pressure and damage your blood vessels, both of which may make them more likely to rupture or become blocked.
What You Can Do to Prevent a Stroke
The best way to reduce your chance of experiencing a stroke is to focus on the risk factors you can control.
For instance, adopting healthier eating habits and increasing your physical activity may lead to weight loss, which in turn can reduce or eliminate associated risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Even if you already have a risk factor, such as diabetes, keeping it under control and practicing proper condition management can significantly reduce your risk for stroke. Smoking is another hard habit to change, but making these kinds of lifestyle shifts can also improve your overall health, not just your stroke risk.
Facing your health risks and making changes to address them isn’t easy, so seek guidance from your doctor. As they say, knowledge is power — and understanding the various stroke risk factors may just empower you to transform your health.