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Stroke risk factors: what you should know

DIANA RODRIGUEZ Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH

About 50 percent of people who survive a stroke will be disabled in a way that prevents them from being completely independent and taking care of everyday activities. The good news? Nearly 80 percent of all strokes can be prevented if you know your risk factors, and make changes that can decrease your risk.

Stroke risk factors: what you canít control

There are a number of risk factors for stroke that you canít do anything about, except to be aware of them and take other steps to improve your overall health:

Your age. If youíre 55 or older, youíre at an increased stroke risk, and that risk rises every year as you age.

Your gender. Women recently seem to be edging ahead of men in overall number of strokes; whatís more, women are consistently more likely than men to die from a stroke.

Your race. African-Americans are more likely than Caucasians to die from ischemic stroke, the most common type, and Hispanics are more likely to die from hemorrhagic stroke.

Your family history. If you have a close relative, a parent, grandparent, or sibling who has had a stroke, your stroke risk goes up.

Your medical history. If youíve already had a stroke, a transient ischemic attack (TIA, or a warning stroke), or a heart attack you are at greater risk of having a stroke. People who have atrial fibrillation (a disease in which the heart beats abnormally) or sickle cell anemia (a disease in which the malformed shape of red blood cells mean less oxygen reaches organs and tissues throughout the body) are also at increased risk for stroke. Sleep apnea, a condition that causes breathing to temporarily stop during sleep, can also increase your risk of stroke.

If you have any of the above stroke risk factors, you should be especially careful to alter the ones you can do something about.

Stroke risk factors: what you can control

Some of the biggest risk factors for stroke are things that you DO have control over:

Health conditions. If you have conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, atherosclerosis, or heart disease, do everything possible to keep them well controlled to reduce your risk of stroke. For instance, medication, diet, and exercise can really help you manage high blood pressure and high cholesterol and some of the other conditions.

Your diet. Filling up on unhealthy foods that are high in fat, calories, and sodium can contribute to high cholesterol and high blood pressure - and to an increased risk of stroke. Switching to a heart-healthy diet can quickly bring results.

Being sedentary. If youíre not getting up and moving around enough, and not getting regular activity most days of the week, youíre putting yourself at a greater risk for stroke, as well as for a whole host of other health conditions. Get moving! Obesity. If youíre overweight, you are increasing your risk of stroke. And if you are a woman past menopause, keep an eye on your waistline - a measurement over 35 inches puts you at higher risk for stroke.

Smoking. Cigarettes cause damage to your cardiovascular system that can increase your stroke risk. Quit now.

Taking hormones. Hormone replacement therapy, also called HRT, or birth control pills can up your stroke risk by increasing your risk of developing a blood clot.

Stroke risk factors: other potential risks

Though not as well researched, there are other reasons that some groups of people seem to be at a greater risk of stroke. For instance, people who live in the southeastern United States seem to have more strokes than people in other areas of the country. People who live on low incomes also seem to be at an increased stroke risk. And excess use of alcohol and the use of illegal drugs are both linked to a greater stroke risk.

You donít have to move across the country to reduce your risk of stroke, but you do have to clear the chips and cookies out of the pantry and stick to fresh fruits and veggies.

You also have to make exercise an important part of each day and keep your health conditions under control. Making these healthy changes will help you reduce your risk of stroke - and a number of other health conditions as well.


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