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Risk Factors for having a Stroke

With each tick of the clock, a gloomy statistic is chilling and real. Nearly every 40 seconds, someone suffers a stroke in the United States. Recent preliminary data (December 2010) released from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that stroke has now dropped to the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. For the previous five decades, stroke had been the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. While not all strokes are deadly, many people suffer strokes and experience disabling results that require long-term therapy and care.

Stroke prevention is a serious subject, and with good reason. This is because research indicates that knowing and controlling the factors associated with stroke may prevent 80% of strokes from occurring. Thus, everyone should be aware of the major risk factors associated with stroke. Let’s examine the five major risk factors that have been identified for stroke.

#1 Hypertension

One in three people have hypertension, also known as high blood pressure. Many people are unaware of their hypertension because often there are no signs or symptoms. This is why high blood pressure is often known as the “silent killer”. Regular blood pressure checks are essential because hypertension is a leading risk factor for stroke. Why is this so? Essentially, high blood pressure causes damage to the blood vessels. The damaged vessels are unable to effectively handle the blood flow needed to reach vital organs, such as the brain.

Many people who have high blood pressure can lower their blood pressure without medicine by getting regular exercise, consuming lower fat foods, and by eating a low sodium diet. If blood pressure cannot be controlled through diet and exercise, medication may be necessary.

Whether diet, exercise or medication is needed to control hypertension, one thing is certain: It is very important to get control over high blood pressure, because the risk factor for stroke is so significant. Research has shown that lowering blood pressure can reduce the risk of stroke by 1/3.

#2 Atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis is a condition caused by a build-up of cholesterol and fatty deposits in the arteries. This can narrow the artery walls and cause them to harden, decreasing the blood flow or creating total blockage of blood flow. Sometimes plaque can build up in the diseased arteries, or a portion of plaque may break off from the artery causing a stroke to occur.

The carotid arteries, which are the major arteries in the neck, are the leading location of ischemic strokes in the brain. However, arteries anywhere in the body can be severely damaged by atherosclerosis and this raises the risk of aneurysms. An aneurysm is a bulge in the wall of an artery that can lead to internal bleeding or blockage of an artery in the form of a blood clot.

If atherosclerosis is suspected, a doctor will perform a battery of diagnostic tests such as a blood test to determine the levels of sugars and cholesterol in the blood, a doppler ultrasound test, an electrocardiogram (ECG), a stress test or other diagnostic and imaging tests. The results of these tests will help determine which course of treatment to take.

Healthy lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise can prevent or slow the progression of atherosclerosis, but in some cases medication may be necessary.

#3 High Cholesterol

Cholesterol is an essential component found in every cell and tissue in the body. While the body requires cholesterol to properly function, too much cholesterol in the blood can be harmful and result in an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. A simple blood test called a lipoprotein profile can reveal blood cholesterol numbers. A healthy total blood cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL. Individuals with high cholesterol (total cholesterol above 200 mg/dL) are at risk of adding plaque deposits to the arteries, weakening blood vessels, and compromising their vascular health.

#4 Diabetes

Diabetes is a serious disease that needs to be managed carefully. Diabetes poses a significant risk for stroke in that the disease has a damaging impact on blood vessels everywhere in the body and brain. Individuals with diabetes can lower their risk of stroke by maintaining their blood glucose levels and making sure their blood pressure and cholesterol numbers are within a healthy range. By careful management of their disease, diabetes patients may lower their risk of potential stroke.

#5 Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation is a heart rhythm disorder in which the two upper chambers of the heart (the atria) beat irregularly and out of sync with the lower chambers (the ventricles). Because of the abnormal rhythm, blood flow can be affected.

While atrial fibrillation itself is not considered a life threatening condition, it is a condition that requires medical treatment to restore regular rhythm patterns to the heart. Poor blood flow from atrial fibrillation can result in blood pooling within the heart chambers or the formation of blood clots. Ninety-five percent of blood clots originating from the heart travel to the brain, blocking blood flow and causing a stroke.

Other Formidable Factors

The risk of stroke can be lowered by treating existing medical conditions and making lifestyle changes to promote a healthy, active lifestyle. Smoking doubles the risk of having a stroke, as smoking decreases the good HDL (cholesterol) in the blood, making the blood thicker and increasing the likelihood of clots to form. It is no wonder why the American Heart Association declares that smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States.

Studies have shown that moderate drinking (consuming two or less alcoholic beverages each day), can lower your risk for stroke. However, consumption of more than two alcoholic beverages each day can more than triple the risk for stroke. Therefore, alcohol consumption should be moderate.

Eating a healthy diet consisting of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, can significantly reduce the risk of ischemic stroke. Regular aerobic exercise is also important. Just 30 minutes a day of moderate physical exercise can slow the formation of plaque buildup in the blood vessels and improve overall cardiovascular health.

The National Stroke Association reports that nearly 80% of strokes can be prevented by awareness of personal risk and knowledge of the various risk factors mentioned above. Although stroke can happen to anyone, it is reassuring to know that steps can be taken to improve the risk factors that are in our control. Controllable factors include proper management of blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and the practice of healthy lifestyle habits including diet and exercise. For more information about stroke risk and stroke prevention, visit The National Stroke Association at www.stroke.org.