Who Is at Risk for a Stroke?
A stroke happens in the brain when an artery becomes blocked or a blood vessel bursts. This blocks the flow of blood and oxygen and causes cells to die.
Some stroke risks can be lowered or treated. Others cannot be changed, such as your age and family history. The more risks you manage, the more you can lower your risk.
Lowering High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a common risk factor. The force of the blood pushing against the sides of your arteries can lead to a stroke. High blood pressure is when a person has a systolic pressure greater than 140 mm Hg and diastolic pressure greater than 90 mm Hg.
You should start having your blood pressure checked at age 20. If it is normal, you should get it checked once every 2 years or at every healthcare visit. If you have a chronic health problem or a history of high blood pressure, your doctor may talk to you about ways to lower it.
Lowering High Cholesterol
High cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up in your arteries. This can lead to a stroke. You lower this buildup with diet, exercise, and medicine.
You should have a fasting cholesterol test done every 4 to 6 years starting at age 20. Your doctor will look at your cholesterol numbers and other risk factors to find out if you are at risk of having a stroke. If you have heart disease or diabetes, your doctor will have you take steps to lower your cholesterol. You will also need to have it tested more often.
People with diabetes are at higher risk of stroke. High blood glucose can make arteries stiff and cause a build-up of fatty deposits. This can lead to a blood clot. Your care team can help you manage this health problem. You will also need to reach or maintain a healthy weight.
If you have diabetes, you will also need to control your blood pressure to lower your risk of stroke. Blood pressure medicines can help.
Managing an Irregular Heart Rhythm
If you have an irregular heart rhythm, a blood thinner may be able to lower your risk for stroke. They help prevent blood clots from forming and leading to a stroke. Your doctor will need to follow you closely while you are on blood thinners.
Taking a Look at Smoking and Alcohol Use
Smokers have twice the risk of having a stroke as people who do not smoke. This risk is higher in those who also take oral contraceptive pills. But people who stop smoking can lower their risk to the same level of people who do not smoke in about 5 years. There are ways to stop smoking, such as online support groups, nicotine patches, sprays, gum, and medicine. Talk to your doctor if you need help to quit smoking.
Heavy alcohol use can also raise your risk. Drinking too can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, atrial fibrillation, and liver damage. Not drinking can lower your risk of these problems. Talk to your doctor if you need help stopping.
Getting Regular Exercise
Exercising regularly can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your risk of stroke. Find activities that you like to do. Your doctor can also help you create an exercise program that is right for you.
Taking Antiplatelet Medicine
Antiplatelet medicines make blood platelets less sticky and less likely to form clots that can lead to strokes. It may be a good choice for people who have had a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Having Carotid Artery Surgery
The carotid arteries in the neck bring oxygen to the brain. Carotid artery surgery may be a good choice for people who have fatty deposits in these arteries. It can improve blood flow. This surgery can greatly lower the risk of stroke in people who have a severe blockage and a history of stroke or TIA.
Talk to Your Doctor
We have many more ways to lower the risk of stroke than in the past. If you are at higher risk, talk to your doctor about what might work for you. If you or a loved one has signs of a stroke, call for emergency medical services right away. Early treatment can greatly improve outcomes.
American Stroke Association
National Stroke Association
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Heart and stroke statistics. American Heart and Stroke Association website. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/about-us/heart-and-stroke-association-statistics#.VqDnZ02FMdU. Accessed June 14, 2021.
Heart-health screenings. American Heart Association website. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/heart-health-screenings#.VqDpWk2FMdU. Accessed June 14, 2021.
Primary prevention of stroke. EBSCO DynaMed website. https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/primary-prevention-of-stroke. Accessed June 14, 2021.
Risk factors for stroke or transient ischemic attack. EBSCO DynaMed website. https://www.dynamed.com/condition/risk-factors-for-stroke-or-transient-ischemic-attack. Accessed June 14, 2021.
Stroke (acute management). EBSCO DynaMed website. https://www.dynamed.com/management/stroke-acute-management-1. Accessed June 14, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 6/14/2021