Am I at Risk for Stroke?

Every year, more than 750,000 Americans experience a stroke, and one-third of them are under the age of 65.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of adult disability. Yet, we know that stroke is one of the most preventable of all life-threatening diseases.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month and the National Stroke Association (NSA) urges you to take charge of your health by asking your doctor, "Am I at risk for stroke?"

A stroke, or brain attack, occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted by a blood clot or a broken blood vessel. This lack of oxygen kills brain cells in the immediate area, often causing physical and emotional disabilities including speech problems, memory loss and paralysis.

Stroke prevention is a key element in reducing the number of strokes in this country. An NSA national poll found that while most people understand that strokes may be prevented, 21 percent have no idea how. Furthermore, 87 percent of the public wants to hear about stroke risk and prevention from their doctors.

Risk factors for stroke are conditions - possibly genetic, medical or lifestyle choices that may make a person more likely to suffer a stroke. The two primary types of risk factors are those that are controllable and those that are not. It's important to keep in mind, however, that having one or more uncontrollable risk factors does not make a person fated to have a stroke.

Uncontrollable stroke risk factors include being over age 55, being male, being African-American, having diabetes and having a family history of stroke. People falling into any of these categories tend to have a higher risk for stroke.

Some controllable risk factors for stroke are medical disorders that may be treated with medication or surgery. These conditions include high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, a personal history of stroke, and atrial fibrillation - an irregular heartbeat which allows blood to pool in the heart and can lead to blood clots.

Lifestyle choices that can increase a person's risk for stroke are smoking, drinking too much alcohol and being overweight.

If you have any of these risk factors for stroke, it is important that you work with a health care provider to learn about medical and lifestyle changes you can make to prevent having a stroke.

It is never too late to start taking action to lower your stroke risk.  The National Stroke Association worked with some of the nation's leading experts on stroke to develop the following Stroke Prevention Guidelines:

  • Know your blood pressure.  If it is elevated, work with your doctor to control it.
  • Find out if you have atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat.  If you do, work with your doctor to manage it.
  • If you smoke, stop.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.
  • Know your cholesterol number. If it is high, work with your doctor to control it.
  • If you are diabetic, follow your doctor's recommendations to manage it.
  • Include exercise in your daily routine.
  • Enjoy a lower sodium, lower fat diet.
  • Find out if you have circulation problems. If you do, work with your doctor to control them.
  • If you have any stroke symptoms, seek immediate medical attention.

Most common stroke symptoms:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg - especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no know cause

Up to 80% of strokes may be preventable, with proper attention to lifestyle and medical risk factors. Stroke is also treatable, providing people recognize the symptoms and seek emergency medical treatment. Treatment exists to minimize the effects of stroke, however it must be given shortly after a stroke occurs.

"Today, we know more about stroke prevention and treatment than ever before," according to Jim Baranski, NSA chief executive officer. "By educating people about stroke, lives can be saved and quality of life can be preserved."

Remember to ask your doctor, "Am I at risk for stroke?" To assess your risk, contact the Stroke Team at Emory MBNA Stroke Center by calling 404-778-5770.

National Stroke Association is an independent, national non-profit organization devoting 100 percent of its resources to reducing the incidence and impact of stroke. For more information on stroke and stroke prevention, visit or call 1-800-STROKES.

(Dr. Daniel L. Barrow is Director of the Stroke Center and is available for comment.)