Some risk factors for stroke can’t be controlled. But you do have control over other risk factors, including your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and many lifestyle choices.

a woman swims in the ocean to depict that exercise is one of the ways to help prevent a stroke.Share on Pinterest
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A stroke happens when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and blood to the brain is either blocked or interrupted. Without a sufficient supply of blood and oxygen, brain cells can begin to die.

Stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in adults in the United States. It’s also the fifth leading cause of death. However, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of a stroke.

Strokes are divided into two main categories:

  • Ischemic stroke: An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot forms or moves into a blood vessel. It blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Nearly 80% of strokes fall into this category.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in or near the brain ruptures or bursts.

You may have also heard of a transient ischemic attack (TIA). It’s also known as a “mini stroke,” and is the result of a temporary disruption of blood flow to a part of the brain. Symptoms of a TIA usually resolve within 24 hours, but it’s still important to get medical attention.

Stroke symptoms

A stroke often has an immediate effect on a person. Symptoms of a stroke typically include:

  • speech difficulty
  • face drooping or numbness
  • weakness/paralysis on one side of the body
  • difficulty seeing or walking
  • confusion
  • a severe headache (hemorrhagic stroke)

If you or someone you’re with experiences these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Swift action during a stroke can prevent long-term disability and even death.

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Medical researchers have examined the main types of stroke to better understand who they impact, why, and what can be done to prevent them.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at 10 important stroke prevention steps and how each of these strategies may help lower your stroke risk.

The risk factors for stroke fall into two categories: those you can control and those you can’t.

The uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • genetic factors (such as a family history of certain diseases or conditions that increase the risk for stroke)
  • gender (stroke is more common in men until age 80; women have a higher lifetime risk)
  • age (the older you are, the greater the risk)
  • ethnicity (African Americans are more likely to have a stroke)

But many of the risk factors for stroke can be controlled — or at least influenced in a positive way — to reduce your risks. Modifying certain lifestyle behaviors and getting proper medical treatment can all lower your risk.

Let’s look at these changes in more detail.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major risk factor for stroke. In fact, 90% of all strokes are linked to high blood pressure as a significant contributing factor. The higher your blood pressure, the greater the risk of stroke.

Normal blood pressure is defined as 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg). Blood pressure measurements even slightly above that have an increased stroke risk.

Managing blood pressure doesn’t get easier with age. In fact, by age 65, 2/3 of people are considered hypertensive.

Good blood pressure control includes losing weight, exercising regularly, and eating less salt. Some people may also need to take prescription medications to help lower their blood pressure and to reduce stress on their blood vessels.

It’s estimated that good blood pressure control can prevent about 40% of all strokes.

Diabetes is a significant risk factor for stroke. In fact, stroke accounts for approximately 20% of deaths in people with diabetes, and people with prediabetes have a higher stroke risk, too.

Diabetes is also closely linked to other conditions that increase the risk of stroke, including high blood pressure, obesity, and high blood cholesterol.

Managing diabetes with lifestyle changes, such as exercise and a low-sugar diet, can help reduce the risk of stroke. Some people may also need medications to help keep their blood sugar within a healthy range.

Good blood cholesterol management isn’t just about lowering bad cholesterol (LDL) numbers. Boosting good cholesterol (HDL) numbers is important, too.

In fact, the two have different impacts on the two types of stroke. People with high LDL cholesterol levels have a greater risk of an ischemic stroke, but people with low HDL cholesterol levels have a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke.

A healthy diet of good fats and proteins, like olive oil, avocados, fish, and nuts, may help balance these numbers. For some people, statins may be necessary to reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of plaque buildup in the arteries. Plaque can form into a full blockage or break off and become a clot.

People who smoke have a 2 to 4 times greater risk of ischemic stroke than people who do not smoke, especially among African Americans. In fact, smoking is a factor in nearly 15% of all stroke deaths in the United States each year.

The good news is that once you quit smoking, the benefits start right away and continue over time. Within 2 to 4 years of quitting, your smoke-related risk of stroke will have nearly reached zero.

Quitting can be difficult, though. Support is available with behavioral therapy, counseling, and even some medications or drug-replacement therapies.

It’s true that alcohol can have some protective benefits for the heart. Light to moderate consumption of some types of alcohol may actually increase good cholesterol (HDL), which may lower the risk of stroke.

Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

But heavy alcohol use or misuse can significantly increase your risk of stroke. In part, that’s because drinking a lot of alcohol can increase your blood pressure.

If you have difficulty stopping drinking, there are ways to get help. Behavioral therapy is a good place to start. Community support groups can help, too.

Being overweight and having obesity are leading risk factors for stroke. They’re also closely linked to other conditions or diseases that increase your risk for stroke, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

The risk of stroke in a someone who is overweight is 22% higher than a person at a normal weight. For people with obesity, the risk is 64% higher.

Healthy weight management techniques include getting regular exercise and taking in fewer calories. But, for some people, those changes won’t be enough. Your doctor may prescribe medications or procedures that can help you lose weight.

Also, talk with your doctor about the right target weight for you. For decades, the body mass index (BMI) scale was used to categorize body weight, but research suggests a waist-to-hip ratio may actually be more closely aligned with stroke risk than BMI.

As already mentioned, exercise can have a positive impact on some of the leading risk factors for stroke. It helps lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It can also help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

But exercise alone, regardless of the other benefits, is a healthy habit that can reduce your risk of stroke. In fact, people who exercise regularly, have a lower risk of stroke, and those who do have a stroke are less likely to die than people who aren’t active.

Aim for moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week, even if you’re not looking to lose weight. This exercise doesn’t have to come from endless walking on a treadmill. Consider alternative ideas, like dancing, gardening, and swimming.

Research increasingly makes it clear that poor sleep quality is linked to an increased risk of stroke.

Poor sleep is known to cause issues like fatigue, poor memory, and even anxiety and depression. But not getting enough sleep may also increase your stroke risk.

Sleep issues linked to stroke include insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep apnea, and more. And having a stroke can make sleep issues worse, which will increase your risk for a recurrent stroke.

But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. In fact, research shows that sleeping more than 9 hours a night is also strongly linked to the risk of stroke.

That’s why finding a healthy balance of 7 to 8 hours of sleep is important. If you can’t do that alone, talk with your doctor about medicines, techniques, and sleep aids that can help.

Atrial fibrillation (AF or Afib) is type of heart arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat. If you have Afib, you have a higher risk of stroke and blood clots.

In fact, Afib is linked to 1.9% of strokes per year. And while that may not seem like a lot, if Afib is coupled with other risk factors, the likelihood of a stroke increases.

Afib must be properly diagnosed and treated by a doctor. For many people, treatment will include medications that prevent blood clotting.

Eating a healthy diet not only helps you lose weight, but it can also positively impact other issues that can contribute to your stroke risk. For instance:

  • Reducing sodium consumption may help lower your blood pressure.
  • Eating more healthy fats, like fish and heart-healthy oils, may improve your cholesterol levels.
  • Limiting sugar intake can make it easier to control your blood sugar levels.

Also, you don’t have to focus on counting calories. Instead, focus on eating more healthy foods, like fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, and poultry. Skip or limit simple sugars, red meat, and processed foods.

Making subtle changes to what you put on your plate can have a significant impact on your health. And you can enjoy plates of delicious food while you do it.

If you have an increased risk of a stroke, it’s important to work closely with your doctor to understand how to reduce your risk factors as much as you can.

Fortunately, many of the strategies for stroke prevention can boost your health in other ways, too, and may even reduce your risk of other diseases and conditions.

But preventing stroke is not a one-size-fits-all plan. Combining these strategies to meet your individual risk factors can ultimately have the best long-term impact for your health.