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What Causes a Stroke? Understanding Risk Factors & Prevention

what causes a stroke

Stroke is the 5th leading cause of death in the US and a leading cause of long-term disability. Fortunately, many strokes can be prevented if the right steps are taken early on. To help with this, it’s essential to know what causes a stroke, what risk factors increase your chances of having a stroke, and what steps you can take for prevention. Knowing this information can minimize damage to the brain and potentially save a life.  

To help you understand the various factors associated with stroke, this article will discuss:

What Causes a Stroke?

A stroke is a neurological injury caused by disruption to the flow of blood within the brain. This can be caused by the bursting or clotting of an artery leading to or within the brain.

There are two types of strokes (ischemic and hemorrhagic), and they are differentiated by their causes. Ischemic strokes, which are the most common type of stroke, occur when a blood clot or plaque deposits clog an artery in the brain, stopping blood from perfusing the associated brain area(s). In contrast, hemorrhagic strokes refer to strokes caused by the rupturing of an artery which causes bleeding within the brain or in the areas surrounding the brain. This bleeding creates excess pressure in the affected brain area, resulting in the brain being compressed.

A stroke is a life-threatening condition as brain cells cannot properly function without oxygen-rich blood. Swift medical treatment is necessary to restore the normal flow of blood within the brain, otherwise brain cells continue to die.

Ischemic strokes are often treated with clot-dissolving drugs like aspirin or tPA. Hemorrhagic strokes often require surgery to repair the ruptured artery and relieve swelling within the skull. To minimize brain damage, it is essential to quickly restore blood flow to the affected area of the brain.

Until the stroke has been treated, neurons (brain cells) are being damaged by the lack of oxygen-rich blood. This causes permanent brain damage in the affected areas. Fortunately, the brain is resilient and capable of healing through neuroplasticity. The rehabilitation process is designed to facilitate healing in the brain and restore as much function as possible.

Now that you understand what causes a stroke, let’s discuss the early warning signs of stroke and when to seek help.

Warning Signs of a Stroke

The most effective way to minimize damage caused by a stroke is to identify stroke in its early stages and seek emergency medical attention as soon as possible. This can help prevent the stroke from progressing and potentially save a life.

When someone is having a stroke, they often experience these early warning signs:

  • Facial drooping in half of the face
  • Weakness in one arm and/or leg
  • Slurred or disrupted speech
  • Splitting headache
  • Vertigo
  • Dizziness
  • Sudden vision problems

Strokes are often associated with individuals of older age. However, this has created a bias where a stroke in a young person can go undetected or misdiagnosed. If you are concerned that a loved one is experiencing a stroke, don’t let doctors use age as a reason to shrug it off without a good alternative explanation.

If you experience or witness someone experiencing any warning signs of a stroke, it’s important to call 9-1-1 immediately! Time lost is brain lost. The longer you wait, the longer the brain is deprived of blood and the greater the potential for damage.

Leading Causes of Stroke

man carefully managing hypertension because he know it can cause a stroke

Stroke prevention starts with awareness. You should first understand what the major the risk factors for stroke are so that you can take action if any of them apply to you. By managing risk factors early on, you can reduce your chances of having a stroke.

Many chronic health conditions increase one’s risk of having a stroke. To help with stroke prevention, you will learn about the 5 leading causes of stroke below.

If you have any of these stroke risk factors, now is the time to have a conversation with your doctor about the best management options.

1. Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

Hypertension is a leading cause of stroke because it places extra strain on the walls of the arteries. When there is too much pressure on the arterial walls, there is an increased risk of rupture, which can cause hemorrhagic stroke.

Additionally, high blood pressure can increase damage on the arterial walls, which may contribute to blockages that can cause an ischemic stroke.

This analysis found that based on data from 30 studies, about 64% of stroke patients had hypertension. Maintaining blood pressure at normal levels will decrease strain on the cardiovascular system and significantly reduce the risk of stroke.

2. High Cholesterol

Having high cholesterol is also a leading stroke risk factor.

Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol to produce vital substances like hormones and vitamin D. Only a limited amount of cholesterol is needed from foods, as the liver already produces 80% of the cholesterol the body needs. Regularly eating certain cholesterol-rich foods can result in your cholesterol levels getting too high.

It is important to differentiate between the two types of cholesterols you can eat, as they have opposite effects on your cardiovascular system.

LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, is found in many foods, including fatty meat products. Consuming LDL cholesterol results in fatty deposits called plaques to build up in the arteries, making the arteries narrower and more prone to clotting. This greatly increases the risk of stroke.

The “good” HDL cholesterols are able to carry some of bad cholesterol back to the liver, limiting the effects of bad cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is found in foods such as nuts, fish, and olive oil.

Focusing on limiting your consumption of bad cholesterol and increasing your intake of foods with good cholesterol can limit your risk of having a stroke.

3. Diabetes

Individuals with diabetes are 1.5 times more likely to have a stroke than individuals without diabetes.

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar (also called blood glucose) caused by a lack of insulin produced by the body or insulin resistance. High blood glucose levels can contribute to the buildup of fatty deposits inside the arteries. This can cause damage to the nerves and blood vessels, which can lead to heart disease and stroke.

4. Obesity

Obesity is a well-established risk factor for ischemic stroke that is characterized by having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of greater than 30. In fact, it’s suggested that for each unit increase in BMI, the risk of having a stroke is increased by 6%.

Additionally, the amount of body fat specifically around the waist is proven to be a better predictor of stroke risk than BMI alone. The fat located around the waist is called visceral adipose tissue and too much of it is linked to insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and hypertension, all of which are major risk factors for stroke.

5. Smoking

Smoking narrows the arteries, thickens the blood, and increases the risk of blood clots in the arteries. Each of these factors is a stroke risk within itself, so it’s no surprise that smoking doubles your risk of having a stroke.

By quitting smoking, you can help your blood flow freely throughout your body, which is key to preventing stroke and living a healthy life.

Management Tips for the Leading Causes of Stroke

Oftentimes, strokes can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle adjustments and managing preexisting health conditions.

Here are some of the most effective tips for stroke prevention:

  • Take any medication your doctor prescribes such as medication for high cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • Reduce sodium intake if you have high blood pressure
  • Regularly monitor blood pressure by using a blood pressure monitor at home
  • Reduce dietary “bad” cholesterol if your blood cholesterol is high
  • Increase consumption of “good” cholesterol by eating nuts, legumes, olive oil, and fish
  • Increase physical activity levels if you live a sedentary lifestyle
  • Follow a healthy diet and practice portion control if your doctor recommends you lose weight
  • Incorporate regular aerobic exercise into your routine if you do not already
  • Quit smoking as smoking directly impacts your blood
  • Limit alcohol consumption

While many stroke risk factors can be managed naturally without pharmaceutical intervention, more severe conditions may require additional support. Talk to your doctor about medications such as statins, anticoagulants, and antihypertensive drugs that can help you manage hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Understanding What Causes a Stroke: Key Points

Strokes are caused by a blocked or ruptured artery in the brain. Due to disrupted blood flow to that region of the brain, neurons start to die, resulting in permanent brain damage.

To minimize damage, it’s essential to know the early warning signs of a stroke and seek medical attention immediately. Additionally, focusing on making healthy lifestyle choices can significantly reduce the risk of having a stroke.

We hope this article helped you understand what causes a stroke and the best ways to minimize your chances of experiencing one. Good luck!

featured images: iStock/monkeybusinessimages/PIKSEL

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Get Inspired with This Stroke Survivor Story

5 stars

Mom gets better every day!

“When my 84-year-old Mom had a stoke on May 2, the right side of her body was rendered useless. In the past six months, she has been blessed with a supportive medical team, therapy team, and family team that has worked together to gain remarkable results.

While she still struggles with her right side, she can walk (with assistance) and is beginning to get her right arm and hand more functional. We invested in the FitMi + MusicGlove + Tablet bundle for her at the beginning of August.

She lights up when we bring it out and enjoys using it for about 20 to 30 minutes at a time. While she still doesn’t have enough strength to perform some of the exercises, she rocks the ones she can do!

Thanks for creating such powerful tools to help those of us caring for stroke patients. What you do really matters!”

David M. Holt’s review of FitMi home therapy

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