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A stroke occurs when blood flow is blocked to a part of the brain. Brain cells become deprived of oxygen and begin to die. As brain cells die, people experience weakness or paralysis, and some lose the ability to speak or walk.

In the United States, a stroke happens every 40 seconds, according to the American Stroke Association (ASA). It’s the leading cause of disability. The road to recovery can be lengthy and unpredictable, so it’s important to understand the risk factors of a stroke and how to prevent them from happening.

1. High blood pressure

A normal, healthy blood pressure is lower than 120/80 mm Hg. High blood pressure (hypertension) is when blood flows through blood vessels at a pressure that is higher than normal.

Because high blood pressure can have no symptoms, some people live with it for years before it’s diagnosed. High blood pressure can lead to stroke because it damages blood vessels slowly over time and triggers the formation of clots in the blood vessels in the brain.

High blood pressure can cause not only a stroke, but also heart disease. This is because the heart must work harder to pump blood through the body.

Managing high blood pressure starts with a physical examination and having your blood pressure checked on a regular basis. You will also need to make lifestyle changes to lower blood pressure. This includes eating a low-salt, well-balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and limiting alcohol intake.

2. High cholesterol

Not only should you have your blood pressure checked regularly, but you should also monitor your blood cholesterol level. Too much cholesterol in the bloodstream can cause a buildup of plaque in the blood vessels, which can lead to blood clots. To maintain healthy cholesterol levels, eat a heart-healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, and foods that are low in sodium and fat. It’s also important to exercise regularly.

3. Smoking

Smoking is another risk factor of a stroke. Cigarette smoke contains toxic chemicals, such as carbon monoxide, which can damage the cardiovascular system and increase blood pressure. Plus, smoking can cause a buildup of plaque in arteries. The accumulation of plaque can cause blood clots, which reduces blood flow to the brain. Smoking also increases the likelihood of forming clots.

4. Diabetes

People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are also at risk of a stroke. There’s no cure for diabetes, but with medication and proper diet you can maintain a healthy blood sugar level. This reduces complications such as heart attack, stroke, organ damage, and nerve damage.

5. Other underlying diseases

Having an underlying disease is another risk factor of a stroke. These include:

  • peripheral artery disease (PAD): narrowing of
    blood vessels due to a buildup of plaque in the artery walls
  • carotid artery disease: narrowing of blood
    vessels in the back of the neck due to plaque buildup
  • atrial fibrillation (AFib): an irregular
    heartbeat that causes poor blood flow and blood clots that can travel to the
  • heart diseases: some diseases, such as coronary
    heart disease, heart valve disease, and congenital heart defects, can cause
    blood clots
  • sickle cell disease: a type of red blood cell
    that sticks to the walls of blood vessels and blocks blood flow to the brain
  • having a personal history of transient ischemic
    attack (TIA) or mini-stroke

We can’t always control our family history or health, but we can take certain steps to reduce the likelihood of having a stroke. For people battling high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity, stroke prevention starts with lifestyle changes. For example:

  • Eat a
    well-balanced diet.
    Limit intake of sodium, and consume five or more
    servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Avoid foods with saturated fat and
    trans fat, and limit consumption of alcohol and sugar.
  • Quit
    Some people can give up cigarettes cold turkey, but that method
    won’t work for everyone. Consider nicotine replacement therapy to slowly reduce
    cigarette cravings. Also, avoid people, situations, or places that may trigger
    an urge to smoke. Some people are prone to smoke when surrounded by other
    smokers. You also have the option of taking prescription medication to help
    reduce the urge to smoke. Speak with a doctor for recommendations.
  • Be active.
    Getting at least 30 minutes of activity three to five days a week can have a
    positive impact on blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight management. Workouts
    don’t have to be strenuous. These can include walking, jogging, swimming,
    playing sports, or doing any other activity that gets the heart pumping.
  • Lose
    Working out regularly and modifying your diet can also trigger a
    decrease in body weight, which can lower blood pressure and reduce cholesterol.
    Losing as little as 5 to 10 pounds can make a difference.
  • Get
    annual physicals.
    This is how a doctor assesses blood pressure,
    cholesterol, and blood sugar. See a doctor at least once a year for a checkup.
  • Stay on
    track with treatment if you have a medical condition.
    If diagnosed with a
    disease or condition that increases the risk of stroke, follow a doctor’s
    treatment plan to keep the heart and blood vessels healthy and strong. For
    instance, people with diabetes need to monitor their blood sugar level
    regularly to avoid complications and prevent stroke. Keeping your blood sugar
    in check involves taking diabetes medication, getting regular exercise, and
    eating a balanced diet.

A stroke can be disabling and life-threatening. If you think you or a loved one is having a stroke, call 911 immediately. The longer the brain doesn’t receive adequate blood flow, the more damaging the effects of a stroke will be.