The likelihood of knowing someone who has had a stroke underscores just how prevalent stroke is and how important it is to understand stroke risk factors. According to the World Stroke Organization, more than 101 million people, including men, women, and even children have experienced a stroke. No one is immune to stroke, but the American Heart Association says being aware of risk factors you cannot control, as well as those you can, is important.

Risk Factors You Cannot Control

  • Age. Stroke is more common among both men and women ages 65 and older.
  • Family history. Having a parent, grandparent, sister, or brother who has had a stroke, places individuals at a higher risk. A family history of a genetic disorder known as CADASIL (cerebral autosomal dominant anteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy) that affects blood flow in the brain contributes to that risk.
  • Race. The AHA reports that African Americans are more likely to die from stroke than Caucasians. Part of that is undoubtedly due to socioeconomic factors such as inadequate access to health care, but the AHA also links this elevated risk to higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity within the Black community.
  • Gender. Stroke kills more women than men, and women have more strokes than men.
  • Medical history. Individuals with a personal history of stroke and/or transient ischemic attacks, often referred to as “mini strokes,” are at elevated risk for stroke.

Risk Factors You Can Control

  • High blood pressure. The AHA defines high blood pressure as the most significant controllable risk factor for stroke. Annual well visits are vital to preventive health care, which include monitoring blood pressure. When doctors diagnose high blood pressure, individuals should follow their advice with regard to getting blood pressure back to a healthy level.
  • Smoking. The dangers of smoking are well-documented. The AHA characterizes smoking as “paving the way for stroke.” Never smoking or quitting smoking immediately can lower risk for stroke. The AHA reports the use of birth control combined with cigarette smoking can greatly increase the risk of stroke.
  • Diabetes. It’s important that individuals with type 1 or 2 diabetes control their blood sugar, as diabetes mellitus is an independent risk factor for stroke.
  • Diet. A poor diet high in saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol elevates the risk for various conditions, including high blood pressure and obesity, that increase the likelihood of suffering stroke.
  • Physical inactivity. The AHA reports that physical inactivity increases risk for stroke. Individuals living a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, including office workers, are urged to discuss exercise with their physicians.

There are numerous risk factors for stroke, many of which are beyond individuals’ control. However, recognition of these risk factors is often the first step toward adopting a healthy lifestyle that can greatly reduce the chances a person will suffer a stroke.