You can’t control every risk factor for stroke. A person’s risk increases with age, when there’s a family history of stroke or sometimes according to race. (African Americans, for example, have a higher risk of death from stroke than Caucasians.)
However, it’s important to know that you can do something about many of the risk factors for stroke.
– High blood pressure is the biggest risk factor for stroke. It damages blood vessels and contributes to hardened arteries, which can lead to a stroke if a blood clot blocks an artery or a burst blood vessel bleeds into the brain. Have your blood pressure checked regularly.
– Smoking can cause a buildup of fatty substances in the carotid artery, which carries blood to your brain. Blockage of this artery is the leading cause of stroke in the United States. Smoking can also raise blood pressure, damage blood vessels and deprive the brain of oxygen.
– Heart problems such as atrial fibrillation can raise the risk for stroke. Atrial fibrillation causes the heart to beat irregularly, which may lead to blood clots. These clots can trigger a stroke if they block blood vessels that lead to the brain. Follow your doctor’s instructions for controlling any heart problems you have.
– Artery disease causes fatty deposits called plaque to build up in arteries. Plaque can cut off blood flow and trigger a stroke. If you are over the age of 20, you should have your cholesterol measured at least once every five years.
– Diabetes can raise stroke risk by damaging blood vessels. People with diabetes are also at higher risk for high blood pressure and cholesterol problems, raising their stroke risk even more. By treating diabetes, you can delay complications that raise your stroke risk.
– Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), or “warning strokes,” cause temporary, stroke-like symptoms that often warn that a major stroke is on the way. TIA symptoms come on suddenly and may include: Numbness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body, confusion or trouble speaking, vision impairment in one or both eyes, difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance and severe headache. Be sure to seek medical help immediately if you experience symptoms of a TIA. Treatment can help prevent a full-blown stroke.
– Prior strokes. Once you’ve had one stroke, you’re at a higher risk for having another one. Talk to your doctor about medicines and lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of future strokes.
Choose a healthy lifestyle. Many risk factors for stroke can be reduced simply by choosing a healthy lifestyle. Exercising regularly, eating right and watching your weight today can help protect you from having a stroke.
Patrick Moody is director of marketing and public relations at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.