Brain Attack/Stroke: Risk Factors
A risk factor is a condition or behavior that increases the chances of getting a disease. While anyone can suffer brain attack, there are certain risk factors that greatly boost that risk.
Some of these factors are controllable, or treatable, which means you can take action to reduce your risk. Other factors are beyond your control. Let's first take a look at the treatable risk factors.
Treatable Risk Factors
High blood pressure- If you suffer from high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, you have an elevated risk for brain attack, and that's just one reason you need to seek medical attention for this disorder. If you are already under a doctor's care, remember to take your medication, if any, and follow your doctor's advice. Maintain a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables, exercise, keep your weight down, avoid salt, and avoid drugs known to raise blood pressure. Even a small reduction of blood pressure can lower your risk for brain attack by as much as 35%-40%. Lowering your blood pressure will also reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure.
Cholesterol- We believe that an increase in HDL cholesterol -also known as "good cholesterol"- can help protect against stroke, while high LDL counts- the "bad cholesterol"- can increase the risk. Ask your doctor or a nutritionist for dietary and medication advice.
Obesity- Excess weight increases your risk of brain attack. Let your doctor help you start a weight loss program that's right for you.
Cigarette smoking- If you need one more reason to quit, this is it: smoking can lead to a buildup of fatty deposits in the carotid artery, the main artery in the neck that supplies blood to the brain. Smoking increases the brain attack risk in many other ways, as well. For instance, nicotine raises blood pressure. Smoking thickens your blood, making it more likely to clot. And the carbon monoxide in the smoke reduces the amount of oxygen your blood can deliver to your brain. If you need help quitting, your doctor can recommend a smoking cessation program.
Diabetes- If you or someone you love has diabetes, you already know that it's a serious medical condition. One of the complications of diabetes is that it can lead to brain attack by causing destructive changes in the blood vessels of the brain. In addition, if blood glucose levels are high during a brain attack, the damage to the brain can be more severe than if blood glucose levels are controlled. Diabetes can often be successfully managed, thereby reducing the risk of brain attack.
Ignored warning signs or a previous stroke- Don't ignore a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a mini-stroke. Mini-strokes are stroke warning signs and symptoms that get completely better quickly. If you experience stroke symptoms for even a little while, you should still go to the emergency room right away, even if they are all gone. Tests can be done to find the cause of the mini-stroke. Treating that cause can keep you form having a stroke that sticks. And if you've had a stroke before, follow your doctor's advice to avoid a second occurrence.
Certain drugs or medication- Certain substances, both legal and illegal, can boost the risk of stroke. For example, birth control pills can promote clot formation, especially in women who are smokers and over the age of 35. And cocaine and alcohol abuse can increase the risk of bleeding into the brain, among other harmful effects.
Risk Factors Over Which You Have Little or No Control
If you fall into one or more of the high-risk groups below, for which there are no treatments, it becomes even more important to reduce your risk in other ways that you can do something about (see above).
Age- Those over the age of 55 are at heightened risk.
Race- For reasons still not fully understood, African Americans and Hispanic-Americans are at greater risk of brain attack than those of other races and ethnic backgrounds.
Family history- If others in your immediate family have suffered brain attack, you are also at an increased risk.
Heart disease- Atherosclerosis, endocarditis and arrhythmias are some of the heart conditions and disorders that can lead to brain attack. Make sure you're under the care of a physician and take your medications for any heart condition.
Pregnancy- Women have some risk of brain attack during pregnancy and in the weeks following delivery. Make sure you stay under the care of a physician and report any concerning symptoms.
Serious head injury- Get medical attention, because serious head injury can lead to brain attack.
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This article is a NetWellness exclusive.
Last Reviewed: Oct 11, 2007
Pooja Khatri, MD
Associate Professor of Neurology
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati
Dennis Landis, MD
Formerly, Professor of Neurology
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University