Stroke is a serious medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced. It can happen to anyone, at any age. In fact, stroke is a leading cause of death and long-term disability in the United States. But the good news is that there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of having a stroke.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced. This can happen for two main reasons: a clot that blocks blood flow to the brain (ischemic stroke), or a blood vessel that ruptures and causes bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). When the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen and nutrients from the blood, brain cells start to die. This can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, and even death.

What are the signs of a stroke?

It is important to recognize the signs of a stroke so that you can get medical help as soon as possible. Remember the acronym “FAST”:

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

What should I do if I have a stroke?

If you think you may be having a stroke, call 911 immediately. Every minute counts, so don’t wait to see if your symptoms go away. Getting prompt medical attention can make a big difference in your chances for recovery.

“It is very important to recognize the signs of a stroke because early intervention can increase the chances of recovery and survival,” explains Brevard Health Alliance Family Medicine Provider Dr. Nicholette Fox, MD. “Some signs of a stroke may include facial drooping, slurred speech, or sudden weakness of the arms or legs. If you or someone you know are experiencing these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Time is brain! This means, the longer you wait to seek help, the more detrimental the outcome may be.”

The sooner you get help, the better your chances are for a full recovery. For selective patients with ischemic strokes, certain medications or procedures can be used to aid in the removal of a stroke-causing clot. Typically, these interventions can only be used within a few hours of initial stroke symptoms, so it is best to call 911 immediately if you or someone you know show signs of a stroke. Those who received such interventions early on after having a stroke have better outcomes than those who received them later.

Despite such interventions, stroke prevention is the best way to reduce the burden of stroke.

What are some of the risk factors associated with stroke?

  • Nonmodifiable risk factors (things we cannot control)
    • Older age
    • Ethnicity – Blacks and some Hispanic/Latino Americans, and American Indians have higher risk of stroke
    • Genetics
  • Modifiable risk factors (things we can control)
    • High blood pressure
    • Diabetes
    • High cholesterol
    • Cigarette smoking

When should I talk to my provider about my risk for stroke?

“It is always a good time to talk with your provider about your stroke risk,” stresses Dr. Fox. “It is particularly important if you have any of the risk factors for stroke such as hypertension, diabetes, elevated cholesterol levels, family history of stroke, smoke cigarettes or engage in heavy alcohol consumption.”

How can I reduce my risk of stroke?

“There are a number of things patients can do to reduce their stroke risk. Some examples include eating a healthy diet to assist with lowering cholesterol and maintaining a healthy weight, as well as quitting smoking. It is also important to adhere to the treatment plan set by your provider to manage conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol levels, as these are all risk factors associated with increased risk of stroke.”

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke:

  • Manage your blood pressure: High blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke. Get your blood pressure checked regularly and take steps to keep it under control.
  • Quit smoking: Smoking can damage your blood vessels and make them more likely to narrow or rupture. If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your health.

“Cigarette smoking is strongly linked to stroke risk; it affects blood vessels in such a way that decreases blood flow and increases the likelihood of clot formation – both of which create the perfect environment for a stroke to occur,” adds Dr. Fox. “If you are interested in quitting smoking, talk to your provider. He or she can talk to you about nicotine replacement therapies and other means of quitting smoking. We also have a number of providers at BHA, such as our Health Educator, Dietician, and Pediatric Lifestyle Medicine Physician, who can work with you to address lifestyle measures to reduce your stroke risk.”

  • Eat a healthy diet: A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low in salt and saturated fats can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of stroke. Examples include the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, or a whole foods plant based diet
  • Exercise regularly: Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your blood pressure, and reduce your risk of stroke.
  • Control your cholesterol: High cholesterol levels can contribute to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, which can increase your risk of stroke. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage your cholesterol levels.
  • Reduction of alcohol intake: No more than 2 drinks per day for men, and no more than 1 drink per day for women

Maintaining a regular visit with your healthcare provider can help ensure your risk for serious illness.

“Visiting your provider regularly can be very beneficial for your overall health. During each office visit, your provider assesses your blood pressure, weight, smoking history, family history, and many other factors that contribute to your health,” explains Dr. Fox. “Most patients have blood work done every 6 months to 1 year, which is a good time to see where your cholesterol levels are, and if you may be prediabetic or diabetic. By performing these screenings, your provider may be able to identify problems before they progress and counsel you on how to manage them. For example, mildly elevated cholesterol levels and prediabetes can often be improved with simple lifestyle measures such as diet and exercise. If you already have conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, seeing your provider regularly is necessary to ensure these are well managed, whether that is with lifestyle measures and/or with medication.”

Stroke can have long-lasting effects on your health and quality of life. By taking steps to manage your blood pressure, quit smoking, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and control your cholesterol, you can reduce your risk of stroke. And by recognizing the signs of a stroke and getting medical attention quickly, you can help improve your chances for a full recovery.

“There are some non-modifiable risk factors for stroke, such as older age, Black or Hispanic ethnicity, and family history of stroke. However, there are many risk factors we have control over that can greatly reduce the risk of having a stroke,” says Dr. Fox. “Adopting a healthy diet, exercising, and quitting smoking not only lower your stroke risk, but also positively affect your health in multiple ways. Take control of your health today by talking to your provider about ways to lower your risk of having a stroke. Remember to think FAST if stroke symptoms present, and that time is brain.”