Think FAST: Stroke Risk Factors and Warnings

A stroke happens when blood flow to your brain is obstructed—either entirely stopped or greatly reduced. This slows or stops the flow of oxygen the brain needs to function properly. A stroke is a medical emergency and the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.

It is very serious, but you can take control of your health by being aware of your risk and knowing what to do at the signs of stroke.

What’s my risk of having a stroke?
First, be aware that there are risk factors of a stroke that you can’t change, but that you should still know them in case they apply to you. According to the American Stroke Association and the Mayo Clinic, these include:

  • Prior stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA) or heart attack — If you’ve already had a stroke, your risk is greater than that of a person who has never had one. Meanwhile, if you’ve had a TIA, or a “mini stroke”, your risk is nearly 10 times that of someone who has never had one before. A prior heart attack also increases your risk.
  • Age — The chance of having a stroke approximately doubles for each decade of life after age 55.
  • Race — African-Americans have a much higher risk of a stroke than others do.
  • Heredity or Family History — If someone in your family has had a stroke, your risk may be greater.
  • Sex — Women have a greater risk of having a stroke and of dying from a stroke than men.

Below are some risk factors that you can control, change or seek treatment for, according to the American Heart Association and the National Stroke Association:

  • Alcohol use. Drinking heavily can increase your chance of having a stroke.
  • Smoking tobacco and being exposed to second-hand smoke. Smoking tobacco products and being exposed to second-hand smoke both elevate blood pressure and can lead to clots. Quitting now  can greatly improve your overall health and lower your stroke risk.
  • Illicit Drug Use. Use of illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines.
  • Weight. Being overweight or obese increases your chance of stroke.
  • Blood pressure. The risk of stroke begins to increase when blood pressure is higher than 120/80.
  • Heart Health. Cardiovascular disease increases stroke risk.
  • Hormones. Birth control pill use or hormone therapies that include estrogen can increase your stroke risk.
  • Blood Sugar. Diabetics have a higher chance of stroke than those without insulin issues.
  • Cholesterol. High cholesterol points to a higher stroke risk.
  • Diet. Diets high in sodium, saturated fats and trans fats can increase your risk of stroke.
  • Physical fitness. Being physically inactive can lead to strokes.
  • Sleep apnea. This sleep disorder results from intermittent drops in oxygen levels during the night.

Now that I know my stroke risk, what can I do to lower it?
If you’re concerned that you might have multiple risk factors for stroke, now is a great time to get your body moving! One immediate action that can positively affect not only your stroke risk but also your blood pressure, weight, poor cholesterol levels and heart disease risk is exercise – specifically, walking: it’s a great exercise for all ages and fitness levels!

According to a study published in the journal Stroke, frequent walking may reduce your risk of having a stroke. The study tracked men ages 60-79 over 11 years. Among men who walked an hour or two per day, the risk of having a stroke was cut by 1/3. For those who walked three or more hours daily, stroke risk was slashed by two-thirds. Although that may sound like a lot of time, it included any walking from a fast walk around the block to a slow stroll through the aisles of a store; what’s more, you don’t have to do all of your physical activity at the same time. According to the American Heart Association, you’ll get the same benefits if you divide your exercise time into smaller 10- to 15-minute chunks each day.

Before making any big changes to your diet or exercise routine, make sure to talk to your doctor. He or she will have additional information to help you control your risk for a stroke.

How to act FAST in the event of a stroke
Finally, learn those signs in the video and be prepared to call 911. Since a stroke is an emergency, it’s important to act FAST if you notice the signs of a stroke in yourself or others.