Medical Speech Pathology

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Highlighting the Common Risk Factors for Stroke

 Intel executive Sean Maloney's brain scan after his stroke

from Intel Free Press at

Someone in the United States has a stroke every 45 seconds and although 10% of people who suffer one make almost a full recovery, the story isn’t so good for the remainder. The mortality rate is around 15% and for the rest who do survive, they will be left with some degree of disability. From swallowing and speech difficulties to problems with mobility and vision, around 10% of stroke survivors experience a disability that requires them to move to a long-term care facility to take care of their increased needs. However, the occurrence of stroke and its consequences could be greatly reduced if more people were aware of the common risk factors for stroke. While you can’t do anything about getting older or your genes, for other contributing factors you can take action both through the help of medical services and through lifestyle changes. Here we consider some of the main factors that contribute to the occurrence of stroke.

High blood pressure

According to figures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 67 million of us in the US have raised blood pressure, but around 14 million of us don’t even know we have the condition; even when we do and are receiving medical assistance, in more than half of cases blood pressure remains poorly controlled. This is a real issue, as having high blood pressure makes you four times more likely to die from a stroke. Having blood that is forced through the vessels under high pressure makes the arteries, including those supplying the brain, more susceptible to the build up of fatty deposits, which causes narrowing and increases the chance of a blood clot forming; a blockage in a blood vessel is the cause of around 80% of strokes, with this type termed an ischemic stroke. Alternatively, uncontrolled blood pressure causes weakening of the blood vessels in the brain and if they burst leading to a bleed, this results in a hemorrhagic stroke. Limiting alcohol and salt, whilst keeping physically active, are some of the advised ways to keep blood pressure in check.

Raised cholesterol

If you’re amongst the one in six Americans with high cholesterol, besides increasing your risk of a heart attack, you’re also more likely to suffer a stroke. When you go to see your doctor for the results of a blood test to check cholesterol level, they will usually talk about three readings, your total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. While the overall cholesterol level is linked to stroke risk, having raised LDL cholesterol, which is the form that is deposited in the walls of the arteries, is most important; you want to especially keep levels of this low. HDL cholesterol on the other hand is protective and helps to keep the blood vessels clear by removing fatty deposits, so maintaining levels of this are ideal. Following a balanced diet, whilst limiting your intake of saturated fat from animal products, and taking regular exercise, can aid more favorable LDL and HDL cholesterol levels.

Excess body weight

Just short of 70% of us in the US weigh more than we should. Carrying extra weight, especially if it is around your waist, is associated with an increased risk of stroke through its negative effect on other risk factors. Not only does being overweight increase blood pressure and cholesterol, but also makes the body less able to process blood sugars, leading to diabetes, a condition that increases the chance of a stroke two fold. However, there is now growing evidence that obesity itself appears to be a contributing factor to stroke, as the risk is higher even when you control for the likes of blood pressure. Limiting surplus calories from foods high in fat and sugar, combined with portion control and regular activity can aid weight loss.


If you smoke cigarettes, your risk of a stroke is around double that of a non-smoker. Each time you smoke, your blood pressure temporarily rises due to the impact of the chemicals in tobacco on your heart, but over time the blood vessels do become stiffer, so the effects of smoking on blood pressure become longer lasting. Smoking also hastens the narrowing of the arteries, making a blood clot more likely in those that supply the brain. Smoking cessation programs offer the best chance of success for quitting, as the use of counseling and medication is more effective than trying to stop smoking alone.

Identifying risk factors

While you will know that you need to quit smoking and being overweight is hard to ignore, it’s easy for people to walk around for years without realizing they have high blood pressure or cholesterol, as rarely do they show any symptoms. It’s also possible to be oblivious to diabetes, simply putting down factors such as tiredness, increased urination and vision problems to getting older. Many employees are now offered tests in the workplace allowing the identification of these conditions and incentives have sometimes been offered in the form of reduced health insurance premiums when lifestyle changes are made to control them. Those outside of employment or who were not offered health checks may have put off attending their own doctor to undertake them to cut costs. However, with the Affordable Care Act, testing of blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes will be offered free of charge through health plans, making these tests routinely available to a greater number of people to help identify those at risk of stroke. If you do find you need to take medication to manage these risk factors, ensure that those you are prescribed are covered by your insurance policy to aid compliance and reduce your risk of a stroke


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