Written on March 19, 2023 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
Table of contents
What is a stroke?
A stroke is a true medical emergency and can cause permanent brain damage, lasting disability, and even death if care is delayed [1,2]. Stroke is reported as a leading cause of severe long-term disability and death in the United States . It is estimated that someone in the US has a stroke every 40 seconds and dies from a stroke every 3.5 minutes. More than 795,000 Americans have a stroke annually. Understanding what causes a stroke, some signs and symptoms, and ways to reduce risks can be life-saving measures for you or someone else.
Causes of a stroke
A stroke occurs because blood flow is prevented from getting to the brain [1,2]. The lack of blood in the brain limits oxygen and nutrients to the area, leading to parts of the brain becoming damaged or dying. There are two major types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic . Ischemic stroke is when the blood supply to the brain is obstructed by a blood clot or plaque [1,2]. Hemorrhagic stroke occurs when the blood vessel in the brain leaks or bursts. Sometimes blood flow to the brain is only blocked for no more than 5 minutes and is termed a “mini-stroke” or a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Signs and symptoms of a stroke
It’s vital to recognize the signs and symptoms of a stroke so you can quickly notify emergency personnel and save your own life or someone else’s [4,5]. The signs and symptoms of a stroke are sudden and manifest with:
- Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body
- Confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech
- Issues with seeing in one or both eyes
- Inability to walk, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
- Severe headache with no apparent cause
What is FAST?
FAST is an acronym to help you quickly identify the signs of a stroke [4,5]. The faster you notice that you or someone else is having a stroke, the more quickly you'll be able to take action. Here is what FAST stands for:
- F – Face: A one-sided face droop when smiling
- A – Arms: A one-arm downward drift while raising both arms
- S – Speech: Difficult, slurred, or strange speech
- T – Time: If any of the mentioned signs appear, and even if they go away, call for emergency medical attention right away
Risks for stroke
Risk factors for stroke may include [3,6-8]:
- Age: As you get older, your risk of stroke increases. After 55 years of age, your chance of having a stroke doubles every decade.
- Gender: Women have a higher chance of dying due to a stroke than men, and strokes are more common in women. About 55,000 more women than men experience a stroke each year. Additionally, pregnancy and birth control medications increase women’s stroke risk.
- Race and ethnicity: African Americans are more likely to die from a stroke, and the risk of experiencing the first stroke is doubled compared to Caucasians.
- Smoking: Smoking, second-hand smoke, and smokeless tobacco can all increase your risk of stroke.
- Family history: Genetics can have a role in stroke risk. The risk of having a stroke is higher if you have a family member who has had a stroke.
- Chronic conditions: High blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes all increase the risk of stroke.
- Previous stroke or TIA: If you have experienced a stroke or a mini-stroke, your chances of experiencing another one is increased.
- Unhealthy diet: Eating unhealthy foods that contain high saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol has been linked to stroke.
- Limited physical activity: Not getting enough exercise can increase your chances of chronic conditions such as obesity and raise your stroke risk.
- Alcohol use: Too much alcohol intake can elevate your blood pressure and triglyceride levels, contributing to increased stroke incidence.
- Other conditions or risk factors for stroke are sickle cell disease, viral infections or illnesses that cause inflammation, anxiety or depression, high stress levels, air pollution, and medications (for instance, birth control or blood thinners).
Ways to reduce the risk of a stroke
There are several ways you can reduce your risk of experiencing a stroke. Behavioral risk factors such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and an unhealthy diet account for 47% of stroke risk . Factors that can help reduce your risk and potentially prevent stroke involve [7,9-11]:
- A healthy diet: Well-balanced food intake helps to reduce the risk of stroke. In a meta-analysis of six studies, high levels of green leafy vegetables in the diet were associated with a decrease in the risk of stroke by 7%.
- Maintaining a healthy weight: Eating foods low in saturated and trans fats and high in fiber can help prevent high cholesterol and decrease the risk of stroke. Being overweight and obese can increase your risk of developing strokes. Maintaining a healthy weight and making good food choices can improve your overall health and energy levels, and keep your body mass index (BMI) in a healthy range.
- Regularly exercising: Scheduling regular physical activities can complement the positive health effects of eating a healthy diet and help you maintain a healthy weight. Physical activities have a positive impact on lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Maintaining a healthy blood pressure level with exercise can reduce your risk of developing a stroke.
- Avoiding smoking: Smoking has many adverse health effects and dramatically increases your chance of developing a stroke. If you are a smoker trying to stop, consult your healthcare providers for therapeutic medication to help you quit.
- Limiting alcohol: Drinking too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure. If you have elevated risk factors for developing strokes, limiting or stopping alcohol use can reduce stroke risk.
- Managing chronic medical conditions: It’s reported that 87% of the stroke risk could be attributed to modifiable risk factors such as high blood pressure, hyperglycemia, and elevated cholesterol .
- Working with your healthcare provider and medical team: If you have high risk factors for developing a stroke, regularly visiting your healthcare provider can help you maintain good health and lower your stroke risks. Your medical provider can identify risk factors you may not be aware of, recommend treatment options, and work with you on maintaining a healthy diet, weight management, or smoking cessation. Reducing one or more of these risk factors can lower your chance of suffering from a stroke. Your healthcare provider should be your primary source of knowledge to help you stay healthy.
- A stroke is a traumatic medical emergency requiring immediate medical attention because strokes can cause permanent brain damage, disability, or death.
- A stroke can happen without warning because blood flow is prevented from getting to the brain, limiting oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain cells.
- Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a stroke can help you save your life or someone else’s.
- Advanced age, having a family history of strokes, suffering from a previous stroke, or being affected by chronic medical conditions can increase your risk of developing a stroke.
- Stroke risk factors can be reduced by making lifestyle changes, including managing chronic medical illnesses, limiting alcohol, stopping smoking, making good food choices, exercising regularly, and consistently visiting your healthcare provider.
- A stroke is a life-changing event, and being proactive to reduce your risk factors and recognize the signs and symptoms of a stroke can improve your overall health and survival.
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- About stroke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published November 2, 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- What is a stroke? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Stroke facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published October 14, 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Stroke signs and symptoms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published May 4, 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Spot a stroke F.A.S.T. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Know your risk for stroke. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published April 12, 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Causes and risk factors. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Heart disease and stroke statistics—2023 update: A report from the American Heart Association. American Heat Association. URL. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Prevent stroke: What you can do. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published April 5, 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Kleindorfer D, Towfighi A, Chaturvedi S, et al. 2021 guideline for the prevention of stroke in patients with stroke and transient ischemic attack: A guideline from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke 2021;52(7):e364-e467. URL. Published May 24, 2021. Accessed March 9, 2023.
- Ojagbemi A, Okekunle AP, Olowoyo P, et al. Dietary intakes of green leafy vegetables and incidence of cardiovascular diseases. Cardiovasc J Afr. 2021;32(4):215-223. doi: 10.5830/CVJA-2021-017. URL.