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Stroke Risk Factors 

Anyone can have a stroke, but certain behaviors and medical conditions can increase your chances. Fortunately, anyone can take steps to lower his or her risk. 

Stroke Conditions

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, can greatly increase your risk for stroke. Smoking cigarettes, eating a diet high in salt and drinking too much alcohol can all raise your blood pressure. 

High blood cholesterol can build up fatty deposits (plaque) on blood vessel walls. The deposits can block blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke. Diet, exercise and family history affect blood cholesterol levels too. 

Heart disease and common heart disorders can increase your risk for stroke. For example, coronary artery disease (CAD) increases your risk because a fatty substance called plaque blocks the arteries that bring blood to the heart. Other heart conditions, such as heart valve defects, irregular heartbeat and enlarged heart chambers, can cause blood clots that may break loose and cause a stroke. 

Atrial fibrillation (A-fib) is when the two upper chambers (atria) of the heart beat very fast and irregularly, instead of beating in rhythm with the lower chambers (ventricles). The atria may beat so fast they don’t have time to empty completely. When the blood is left in the atria for too long it can form clots. When these clots are pumped out of the heart they can travel to the brain and cause a stroke. 

Treating A-fib is important to prevent stroke. A-fib can be treated in many ways from lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking or limiting caffeine, to medications, ablation or surgery. Preventing blood from clotting can be done by using medications (an anticoagulant or an antiplatelet) that thin the blood making it harder to form clots. Aspirin is the most common antiplatelet drug used for people at low risk for stroke. 

Diabetes can increase your risk of stroke and can make the outcome of strokes worse. Diabetes is a condition that causes blood to build up too much sugar instead of delivering it to body tissues. High blood sugar tends to occur with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

Overweight and obesity. Being overweight or obese can raise total cholesterol levels, increase blood pressure and promote the development of diabetes. 

Previous stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). If you have already had a stroke or a TIA, also known as a "mini-stroke," there is a greater chance that you could have a stroke in the future. 

Stroke Behavior

Some behaviors or lifestyle habits put you at risk of stroke. The more risk factors a person has, the higher his or her chance of having a stroke. 

Smoking injures blood vessels and speeds up the hardening of the arteries. Smoking also increases the risk of blood clots forming in the arteries. Nicotine raises blood pressure and carbon monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen that blood can carry. In addition, blood clots can block plaque-narrowed arteries and cause a brain attack (also known as a stroke). Exposure to other people’s smoke can increase the risk of stroke even for nonsmokers. 

Excessive alcohol raises your blood pressure, which increases the risk for stroke. It also increases blood levels of triglycerides, a form of cholesterol, which can harden your arteries. 

Physical inactivity or not getting enough exercise can make you gain weight. This can lead to increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Inactivity also is a risk factor for diabetes. These are conditions which can increase your risk for stroke. You can reduce your risk by doing moderate-intensity physical activity for a total of 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week. 

Stroke Heredity

Family history. Having a family history of stroke increases the chance of stroke. Genetic factors likely play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease and other vascular conditions.

However, it also is likely that people with a family history of stroke share common environments and risk factors that increase their risk. The risk for stroke can increase even more when heredity is combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as smoking cigarettes and physical inactivity. 

Age and gender. The older you are, the more likely you are to have stroke. Men are at greater risk than women to have a stroke. 

Race and ethnicity. Blacks, Hispanics and American Indian/Alaska Natives have a greater chance of having a stroke than do Whites or Asians.