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Dr. Rajeev Kurapati: Some risk factors for stroke cannot be changed, but here are six that can

Four. That’s how many Americans die every minute from a stroke. Stroke, the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., occurs when poor blood flow to the brain results in cell death. Symptoms may include an inability to move or feel on one side of the body, problems understanding or speaking, feeling like the world is spinning, or loss of vision to one side, among others.

Like any condition, some of us are at greater risk for strokes than others. Having a risk factor for stroke doesn’t mean you’ll have a stroke. On the other hand, not having a risk factor doesn’t mean you’ll avoid a stroke. Some factors for stroke simply can’t be modified by medical treatment or lifestyle changes:

(Photo from flickr user ConstructionDealMkting)

Click to enlarge (Photo from flickr user ConstructionDealMkting)

Age. Stroke occurs in all age groups. Studies show the risk of stroke doubles for each decade between the ages of 55 and 85.

Gender. Men have a higher risk for stroke.

Race. People from certain ethnic groups have a higher risk of stroke. For African Americans, stroke is more common and more deadly—even in young and middle-aged adults—than for any ethnic or other racial group in the United States.

Family history of stroke. Stroke seems to run in some families. Several factors may contribute to familial stroke. Members of a family might have a genetic tendency for stroke risk factors, such as an inherited predisposition for high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes.

While we may not have control over genetic risk factors, there are several factors that we mitigate by living healthy lifestyles or seeking treatment. Here are six risk factors you can treat:

1. High blood pressure, or hypertension 

Hypertension is by far the most potent risk factor for stroke. Hypertension causes a 2 – 4 times increase in the risk of stroke before age 80. To get your blood pressure to a normal range, work with your doctor on the following: Maintain proper weight. Avoid drugs known to raise blood pressure. Eat right, cut down on salt and eat fruits and vegetables to increase potassium in your diet. Exercise more. Your doctor may prescribe medicines that help lower blood pressure.

2. Heart disease 

Common heart disorders such as coronary artery disease, valve defects, irregular heart beat (atrial fibrillation), and enlargement of one of the heart’s chambers can result in blood clots that may break loose and block vessels in or leading to the brain. Your doctor will treat your heart disease and may also prescribe medication, such as aspirin, to help prevent the formation of clots. You may also consider surgery to clean out a clogged neck artery if you match a particular risk profile.

3. Cigarette smoking 

Smoking more than doubles your risk of stroke. Your doctor can recommend programs and medications that may help you quit smoking.

4. Diabetes 

In terms of stroke and cardiovascular disease, having diabetes is the equivalent of aging 15 years. You may think this disorder affects only the body’s ability to use sugar, or glucose. But it also causes destructive changes in the blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain. If your blood glucose levels are high at the time of a stroke, then brain damage is usually more severe and extensive than when blood glucose is well-controlled. Hypertension is common among diabetics and accounts for much of their increased stroke risk. Treating diabetes can delay the onset of complications that increase the risk of stroke.

5. Physical inactivity and obesity

Obesity and inactivity are associated with hypertension, diabetes and heart disease. Eating right and exercising to keep your body at a healthy weight can decrease your risk of stroke by three times.

6. Cholesterol imbalance

Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol carries cholesterol (a fatty substance) through the blood and delivers it to cells. Excess LDL can cause cholesterol to build up in blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the major cause of blood vessel narrowing, leading to both heart attack and stroke. Work with your doctor to keep your cholesterol under control. Eating a healthy diet will also help keep you balanced.


Dr. Rajeev Kurapati is a board certified family physician practicing at St. Elizabeth Hospitals in Northern Kentucky. He is the author of the award-winning book “Unbound Intelligence,” released in January 2014. By uniting the theories of science, the nature of biology and the wisdom of spiritual traditions, Dr. Kurapati empowers readers to understand the complex workings of our mind and the role this plays in our journey to happiness. He lives in Cincinnati with his family.

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