Strokes can strike anyone at any age, even newborns.
However, there are risk factors that can make a stroke more likely. Some of these are unavoidable – we all get older – but others can be controlled or avoided with medical help coupled with lifestyle changes.
Age – Stroke becomes more common as a person ages. For each decade after 55, the chance of stroke doubles.
Gender – Strokes happen to men slightly more often, while women make up over half of stroke fatalities.
Race – African Americans are more likely to die from strokes, partially because of higher risk for hypertension, diabetes, and obesity.
Family history – If someone in the immediate family has had a stroke or heart attack, particularly when young.
Personal history – A previous stroke puts the person at a high risk of having another one. The risk is also elevated for a prior ‘mini-stroke’, also known as a transient ischemic attack. This occurs when there is a temporary block to the brain’s blood supply, and has symptoms of a full-blown stroke that pass within minutes to a few hours.
Certain physical abnormalities – One strong risk factor is an aneurism within the skull, caused by an artery bulging due to weakened walls. Fibromuscular dysplasia, in which the arteries develop improperly, is another risk factor.
Finally, there is patent foramen ovale, or a flap opening between the upper chambers of the heart, which allows blood clots to travel up into the brain.
These factors have a cumulative effect; the presence of one raises the chance of several other factors. On the other hand, controlling one can drop multiple factors.
Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle – These raise the chance of several stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
High blood pressure – Hypertension creates extra strain on the arteries, weakening them. It is the leading risk factor for stroke. It is important to keep a close eye on blood pressure numbers and work with a doctor to keep them in a healthy range.
Diabetes – Unmanaged diabetes raises many risk factors, from blood pressure to cholesterol and heart disease.
High cholesterol – This can settle like plaque in the arteries and eventually block them, leading to atherosclerosis, yet another risk factor.
Heart disease and disorders – These include coronary heart disease and atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat. AFib alone increases stroke risk five times over.
Blood disorders – Sickle cell disease or anemia can cause stroke if unmanaged.
These disorders also ravage other systems in the body; it is vital to control them.
Recreational substance use – includes smoking, heavy drinking, and illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Smoking lowers oxygen levels in the blood, forcing the heart to work harder and fostering blood clots. Street drugs also increase stroke risk. Both should be abstained from. Heavy drinking also contributes to the chance of stroke. People, especially those with many other risk factors, should stick to one drink a day for women, two drinks for men.
Medications – Ironically, some of the pills prescribed by a doctor to manage other conditions can raise stroke risk. One example is hormonal birth control. It is important to talk with the doctor and balance out the risks and benefits of all such medications.
Anyone with concerns or multiple stroke risk factors should talk to their doctor and come up with a strategy to hopefully prevent the stroke.