Think FAST: Stroke Risk Factors and Warnings

Think FAST: Stroke Risk Factors and Warnings

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A stroke happens when blood flow to your brain stops or is  greatly reduced. It also slows or prevents 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.

You can protect yourself with two important steps. Be aware of your risk for stroke. Know what to do when the signs of stroke appear.

Identify Your Risks for Stroke

There are risk factors you can’t change. According to the American Stroke Association, leaving site icon these include:

  • Prior stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA) or heart attack — If you’ve already had a stroke, your risk is greater than it is for a person who has never had one. If you’ve had a TIA (“mini stroke”), your risk is nearly 10 times greater. A prior heart attack also increases your risk.
  • Age — The chance of having a stroke doubles for each decade of life after age 55.
  • Race — African-Americans have a much higher risk of a stroke.
  • 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.

There are risk factors you can control, change or seek treatment for, says the American Stroke Associationleaving site icon 

  • Alcohol use. Drinking heavily can boost 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 elevate blood pressure and can lead to clots. Quitting can greatly improve your overall health and lower your stroke risk.
  • Illegal Drug Use. Using drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines raises your risk.
  • Weight. Being overweight or obese increases your chance of stroke.
  • Blood pressure. The risk of stroke begins to grow when blood pressure is higher than 120/80.
  • Heart Health. Cardiovascular disease increases stroke risk.
  • Hormones. Some birth control pills and hormone therapies that include estrogen can increase your stroke risk.
  • Blood Sugar. People with diabetes have a higher chance of stroke.
  • 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 can up your risk for stroke.
How to Reduce Risk

If you’re concerned that you might have risk factors for stroke, now is a great time to get your body moving. One immediate action that can help lower your risk for stroke is exercise.

Physical activity can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight. It also helps lower your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. leaving site icon Adults should aim for 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity (think brisk walking) each week.

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

It’s Important to Act FAST

Remember to call 911 right away. Since a stroke is an emergency, it’s important to act FAST if you notice the signs of a stroke in yourself or others.

 Sources: Stroke Risk Factorsleaving site icon Risk Factors for Stroke, leaving site icon American Stroke Association, 2022; Prevent Stroke: What You Can Do, leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.

Originally published 5/25/2015; Revised 2022