Is Your Lifestyle Putting You at Risk for a Stroke?

Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States experiences a stroke. In 2016, someone died of a stroke roughly every three to four minutes. What’s more, among all the causes of death in the country, stroke is ranked No. 5—and those who don’t die are likely to sustain long-term disabilities, per statistics from the American Heart Association.

For those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid its impact, the American Stroke Association defines a stroke "a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain." A stroke is caused by a blockage in the blood vessels that leads to the brain, resulting in brain cells being depleted of the blood and oxygen they need to function. The blockage can be caused by a clot or by a ruptured blood vessel. There are several different types of strokes of varying causes and impacts, but they all should be taken seriously.

Those are some scary numbers and facts—but by increasing your awareness of stroke signs and risk factors, you can take the first steps toward prevention.

Signs of a Possible Stroke

Dr. Robert Segal, M.D., cardiologist and co-founder of, identifies these common symptoms of a stroke:
  • Sudden numbness or loss of strength in the arm, face or leg (usually on just one side of the body).
  • Difficulty in speaking even the most common words.
  • Confusion or difficulty understanding what someone is saying.
  • Dizziness and/or lack of balance and coordination.
  • Headache that has no known cause and cannot be explained.
  • Difficulty with sight.
James H. Bernheimer, M.D., of the Neurology Center at Mercy Medical Center also recommends using the FAST acronym to identify a possible stroke:
  • Drooping of the Face
  • Inability to hold the Arm up without it drifting
  • Slurring of Speech
  • Time is of the essence
"Some people now use the acronym BE FAST, where the B and E stand for Balance and Eyes, as strokes in the back part of the brain may affect the ability to walk or cause double vision and eye movement abnormalities," Dr. Segal notes.

If you think you or someone around you might be having a stroke, it is essential to call 911 (or have someone else call) right away.

Risk Factors That Cannot Be Controlled

Some people are naturally more predisposed to having a stroke, due to certain uncontrollable factors:
  • Gender: According to the Harvard Medical School, about 55,000 more women have strokes compared to men. This could be attributed to women living longer (and thus being more susceptible to stroke at older ages), and could also be influenced by hormonal changes and reproductive events.
  • Age: The National Stroke Association warns that older people are more likely to suffer from a stroke. After age 55, the chances double for each decade.
  • Genetics: The risk of strokes and heart attacks can be hereditary. If a family member has experienced a stroke, it is even more important to take steps for prevention.
  • Previous strokes: Someone who has already experienced a stroke has a greater risk of a future recurrence. According to the National Stroke Association, approximately a quarter of all yearly strokes are recurrent attacks.
  • Race and Ethnicity: African Americans, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders have a higher risk of stroke than Caucasians, according to the Association.
  • Medical disorders: Certain medical conditions, such as fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD) and patent foramen ovales (PFOs), can make someone more predisposed to having a stroke.

Risk Factors That Can Be Controlled

Even if you have some of the uncontrollable factors listed above, there are steps you can take to reduce your stroke risk. Most of these involve healthier lifestyle choices.


According to Dr. Allen Conrad of the Montgomery County Chiropractic Center, excess body fat can lead to inflammation, which can affect blood flow and possible blockages, increasing the risk of stroke.

To reduce the chances of stroke, take steps to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight: namely, eating a nutritious, sensible diet within a target calorie range and incorporating regular exercise.

"The exercise will have a twofold effect—in addition to reducing the risk of stroke, it will also improve your cardiovascular fitness," Dr. Conrad notes. A study published on stroke research showed that moderate regular exercise reduced the chance of stroke by 20 percent, and highly active individuals had a 27 percent less chance of a stroke.


Dr. Segal warns that the nicotine and carbon monoxide intake associated with smoking can damage the cardiovascular system. It also accelerates clot formation, as it thickens the blood and plaque buildup in the arteries. If you are a smoker, take steps to kick the habit.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure contributes to damage of blood vessel walls, which promotes plaque formation, warns Dr. Bernheimer. It is also a major risk factor for the type of stroke caused by bleeding into the brain, as it can cause small blood vessels to rupture.

"Good blood pressure control can cut your stroke risk in half, and it is by far the most important modifiable risk factor," he says.

Some people successfully achieve healthy blood pressure levels through low-sodium diets, exercise and weight loss—but if these approaches don’t work, medication may be required.

Sedentary Lifestyle

"If you find yourself sitting down for more than eight hours every day (not including sleeping hours), then most likely you are not getting enough movement," says Dr. Segal. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease.

To counteract this risk, try to be active for 30 minutes per day (which exercises your heart) or 150 minutes per week. "Even a short walk would do," Dr. Segal says. "Just break your cycle of sitting down for hours at a time."

High Cholesterol Levels

High levels of cholesterol can cause fatty plaques to build up and create blockages in the blood vessels, which can then cause a stroke, notes Dr. Segal. The first step to taking control of your cholesterol is knowing what your numbers are, he says.

"If you do have high cholesterol, then eat more heart-healthy foods, and minimize your consumption of food that is high in saturated fat and trans-fat," he suggests. "Also cut down on red meat and dairy, and eat more fruits and vegetables."

As Dr. Conrad points out, studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can be helpful for stroke prevention due to its focus on vegetables and healthy oils. If dietary changes aren’t effective, medications may be needed.


Dr. Conrad warns that uncontrolled diabetes can damage tiny blood vessels, leading to a higher risk of a stroke. He recommends maintaining proper blood sugar levels and checking them on a regular basis. It’s also best to avoid simple sugars like soda and desserts, which can cause high blood sugar spikes.

Dr. Bernheimer adds that weight loss can also improve diabetes control (particularly with Type 2 diabetes), and that it is very important for people with diabetes to watch their carbohydrate and fat intake.

Regardless of your individual risk factors, the experts agree that the best strategy for reducing stroke risk is a combination of proper nutrition and regular exercise. "There are factors that cannot be controlled, including age and genetics, but maintaining a proper weight and regular cardiovascular activity can be your best defense in stroke prevention," says Dr. Conrad.