Did you know stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the US?  For women, the risk is even greater, with 425,000 women suffering from a stroke each year, 55,000 more than men.  When it comes to preventing the likelihood of a having a stroke, knowing the risk factors and taking a proactive approach to your health can make a significant difference.

Risk Factors

While some conditions can be controlled and managed through diet and exercise, others may require medication or surgical intervention.  If you have any of the risk factors listed, consult with your doctor on the proper method for addressing those risks. 

High Blood Pressure

High Blood Pressure, of all the risk factors, is the most important.  Do you know your numbers? 

                                                SystolicPressure (mm hg)            Diastolic Pressure (mm hg)

                Normal                                 Less than 120                                    Less than 80

       Prehypertension                              120 - 139                                               80 - 89

                  High                                      Over 140                                               Over 90

Often referred to as a “silent killer”, high blood pressure is often asymptomatic, meaning people with high blood pressure are not likely to experience any symptoms.  If you have a family history of high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke, make sure to have your blood pressure checked at least every six months or more often, depending on your readings.

Although your risk for high blood pressure can increase with age, diet and exercise are key to keeping it low or lowering already high blood pressure.  However, if diet and exercise alone do not have a satisfactory impact on lowering your blood pressure, work with your physician to find the right medication.  Make sure you communicate any side effects you are having with the medication and continue to monitor your blood pressure.


Smoking contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries that can restrict blood flow to the brain, constricts blood vessels, and raises blood pressure, all of which can lead to a stroke.  In fact, researchers have found that smokers have twice the risk of ischemic stroke and four times the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, than those who do not smoke.

One of the first things you can do to decrease your risk for stroke is to stop smoking altogether.  If you don’t smoke, don’t start.  Even being around people who smoke on a regular basis can increase your chances of stroke.  The Center for Disease Control has put together a comprehensive list of resources if you or someone you know needs to quit smoking. 

High Cholesterol

High cholesterol or plaque build-up in the arteries can block normal blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke. High cholesterol may also increase the risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis, which are both risk factors for stroke.  Adults 20 years and older should start getting their cholesterol checked every 5 years.  If you have a family history of heart disease, stroke, or high cholesterol, you should be checked more often.  Men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55 should be checked at least once a year during an annual exam and more often if the readings are high.

Cholesterol consists of LDL (known as the bad cholesterol) and HDL (known as the good cholesterol).  An LDL of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is optimal.  LDL between 130 and 159 is borderline high, and anything over 160 mg/dL or more is high and should be monitored closely by a physician.  While age, gender, and family history are outside our control to manage LDL cholesterol; diet, exercise and weight management are things we can actively manage to help decrease our LDL cholesterol and overall risk for stroke.   

The CDC recently reported that although two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, only 13% of Americans have high total cholesterol.  Researchers contribute the decline over the last decade to more Americans taking cholesterol-lowering drugs and more people kicking the smoking habit.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation is an irregular or rapid heartbeat that can cause poor blood flow within the body, increasing the risk for stroke by 500%.  For women, atrial fibrillation increases their risk for stroke fourteen percent more than men.  Atrial fibrillation is an independent risk factor for stroke, meaning just this risk factor alone can greatly increase your risk for stroke, even if you have none of the other risk factors.  Treatment for atrial fibrillation included medication and surgical interventions to try to normalize the heart beat. 

A recent study found heart palpitations, especially when accompanied by high blood pressure, may be a precursor to developing Atrial Fibrillation later in life.   Frequent palpitations increased the risk of atrial fibrillation in women by 62% and in men by 91%.

Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol consumption and stroke have been linked in several studies, as drinking too much alcohol can raise the levels of some fats in the blood, or triglycerides.  The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily alcohol intake to no more than two drinks a day for men.  For women, daily intake should be limited to one drink per day. 


Having diabetes can increase your risk for stroke by four times, when compared with those who do not have diabetes.  The reason people with diabetes are at such an increased risk is due to the fact many people with diabetes have other risk factors for stroke, including uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension.  As many as two out of three people with diabetes have hypertension.  Other common risk factors among those with diabetes include atrial fibrillation and high cholesterol. 

The risk for stroke for people who have diabetes can be decreased through proper management of their diabetes and physician monitoring.

Lack of Exercise&Poor Diet

Exercise can cut the risk for ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke significantly, up to thirty percent for both fatal and non-fatal strokes.  According to one study, the greatest decrease in risk for women was with ischemic strokes, or twenty-four percent.  Walking and even more intense physical activity for thirty minutes a day is sufficient for a measureable decrease in your risk for stroke.

The other side of the coin is poor diet.  Recently researchers discovered a link between trans fats and an increase in stroke, specifically for older women.  Postmenopausal women who eat a diet high in trans fats increased their risk for stroke by thirty-nine percent, according to the study.  Trans fats are common in baked goods, fast food, and packaged products and increase the risk for stroke by raising bad cholesterol and lowering good cholesterol. 

Closely examining your diet is essential to risk factor modification, especially if you have high blood pressure.  The American Heart Association recommends striking a balance between sodium, which can raise blood pressure, with more potassium in your diet, which has blood pressure-lowering properties.  With ninety-eight percent of Americans consuming double the recommended amount of sodium, eating more potassium is helpful for everyone.

Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)

A TIA is a temporary episode of stroke-like symptoms that can last a few minutes to 24 hours but usually causes no permanent damage or disability. TIA and stroke symptoms are the same and may be a warning for a future stroke.  While up to 40 percent of people who experience a TIA may have a stroke, more men are likely than women to have a stroke following a TIA.  Recognizing and treating a TIA can reduce stroke risk, and depending on the patient’s family history and overall health, drug therapy or surgery may be recommended to decrease the risk for stroke.  

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