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Published on May 01, 2010

Stroke: Understanding Risk Factors and Prevention

In Brief

  • Stroke is the third leading cause of death in Americans and a leading cause of adult disability. A stroke can result in paralysis, and/or loss of speech, movement and memory.
  • Risk factors include being over age 55, being African American, having diabetes, having a family history of stroke, poor diet, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and excessive drinking.
  • Risk factors decrease with close control of diabetes, blood pressure, and high cholesterol, as well as exercise and a “heart-healthy” diet.

The National Stroke Association reports that stroke is the third leading cause of death in America and a leading cause of adult disability. A stroke, or “brain attack,” occurs when a blood vessel breaks or a blood clot blocks an artery, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. When the blood flow is disrupted, brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs. As the brain cells die, abilities controlled by that area of the brain are lost, including speech, movement and memory. 

The amount of neurological damage done by a stroke varies depending on the severity of the stroke and what area of the brain was affected. Disabilities that result from a stroke range from mild weakness in an arm or leg to complete paralysis on one side of the body and loss of speech. The most severe strokes end in death.

Some risk factors for stroke are beyond your control, including being over age 55, being male (stroke is more common in men than women at younger ages, but more women experience strokes at older ages and more women than men die from stroke), being African American, having diabetes and having a family history of stroke. 

“The chance of having a stroke is increased if you have the following conditions – high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat), heart attack, increased cholesterol, congestive heart failure, diabetes or are a smoker,” says Gregory Cuculino, M.D., chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Taylor Hospital.

There are also certain risk factors that can be controlled. Joseph Lubeck, D.O., chief of the Section of Neurology at Delaware County Memorial Hospital, says, “Risk factor modification has been well-defined by the American Heart Association. Goals to prevent a second stroke include control of blood pressure, control of blood glucose if diabetic, moderate exercise and an institution of a ‘heart-healthy’ diet."

High blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke. Have your blood pressure checked at least once each year, and more often if you have a history of high blood pressure. Bradley Grayum, M.D., chief of the Section of Neurology at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, says, “There are a number of treatable risk factors for stroke - but I always emphasize control of blood pressure when I discuss risks with my patients. It is very common, very potent. In fact, significant hypertension triples or quadruples the risk of stroke, and we have the means to control it. It is key to work with your primary care doctor to keep your blood pressure in the proper range.”

It is also vital to know your cholesterol number, as high cholesterol is a risk factor for stroke as well as another serious condition — heart disease. High cholesterol can be controlled with diet and exercise, although some people may require medication. The best thing you can do with any medical risk factor is work closely with your doctor to keep it under control.

Lifestyle risk factors include smoking, being overweight, eating a poor diet and drinking too much alcohol. Smoking doubles the risk for stroke. If you stop smoking today, your risk for stroke will begin to decrease. For those who consume alcohol, it is recommended that men consume no more than two drinks per day; no more than one drink per day for women. Keep in mind that alcohol can interact with other drugs you are taking and is harmful if taken in large doses.

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. By cutting down on sodium and fat in your diet and adding more fruits and vegetables, you may be able to lower your blood pressure and, most importantly, lower your risk for stroke. Being inactive, obese or both can increase your risk of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A brisk walk, swim or other exercise for as little as 30 minutes a day may reduce your risk for stroke and improves your overall health.

For more information on stroke, visit

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