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Strokes Are Leading Cause of Disability, so Heres How to Avoid One

May 01, 2019

Every 40 seconds. That’s how often someone in the United States has a stroke. Strokes affect nearly 800,000 people each year, and for many of them, it is their first event. Strokes are the leading cause of long-term disability in this country, so it’s important to understand what they are, what causes them and most importantly, how to prevent them.

A stroke, often called a “brain attack,” is a medical emergency that occurs when blood cannot reach areas of the brain. When that happens, the oxygen the blood carries cannot reach brain cells, so the brain cells become damaged.

Types of StrokesPhysician examining patient

Two kinds of strokes can occur: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are the most common, occurring 87 percent of the time, and are the result of a blood clot blocking the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain. With a hemorrhagic stroke, a blood vessel ruptures, so the blood cannot reach the brain cells.

TIA or “mini-stroke” is another condition in which a clot temporarily blocks blood flow, but then resolves itself. During the time of the blockage, you may temporarily experience some stroke symptoms such as sudden numbness or weakness in the body (especially on one side), confusion, blurred vision and a severe headache. But because the symptoms come and go, many people ignore them. However, a TIA is a warning and can be a sign that a serious stroke will occur.

Causes of Stroke

We know what happens when a stroke occurs, but why does it happen? For that answer, we look at risk factors that can cause stroke. Some are preventable and some are not.

The American Heart Association lists certain physical conditions that significantly increase the risk of a stroke. Those include:

  • High blood pressure, which damages arteries, making them more likely to burst or clog. Because high blood pressure can exist without symptoms, it’s important to make sure your doctor checks it.
  • Smoking, which damages blood vessels and can increase blockages. Quitting smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke greatly decreases stroke risk.
  • Diabetes, which more than doubles stroke risk. People with diabetes have excess glucose in their bloodstream, which may result in fatty deposits that create clots.
  • High cholesterol, which can lead to blockages or narrowing of the arteries that make it easier for clots to form.

Lifestyle choices have an impact on your stroke risk. Inactivity, obesity, stress, lack of exercise, alcohol and illicit drug use all increase your risk for stroke.

Other factors that also can increase stroke risk include conditions like carotid artery disease, atrial fibrillation, sleep apnea and certain blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

Who’s at Risk?

Some groups of people are at a higher risk for stroke because of factors they cannot control:

  • Age—risk of stroke increases as we get older.
  • Gender—women have a higher risk than men, with pregnancy and birth control pills contributing to that increase.
  • Heredity—your chances of having a stroke increase if a family member also has had one.
  • Race—African Americans and Hispanic Americans have a higher stroke risk than white Americans.
  • Prior stroke—having a previous stroke or TIA increases the chances of another stroke occurring.

Tips for Preventing Strokes

Knowing the major causes of stroke provides a roadmap for decreasing those risk factors.

  • Control health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. This means partnering with your healthcare team to monitor your condition, take medicines and follow other instructions to keep these conditions in check.
  • Eat a nutritious diet, such as this heart-healthy nutrition plan from the American Heart Association, or another program prescribed by your doctor.
  • Stay physically active. This not only helps decrease the chances of obesity, but also helps reduce stress levels and can increase the quality of restorative sleep.
  • Don’t smoke, and if you do smoke, quit. Your doctor can talk with you about options to help you quit.

Although we can’t completely change some of the factors that increase the likelihood of having a stroke, many of those risks can be decreased. By addressing the health conditions that raise your risk, you go a long way toward stroke prevention.

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