Family history of stroke? Here’s how to lower your risk

Brain Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Jan 13, 2022

Your brown eyes, your curly hair, your love of a good story. You get a lot from your family. But unfortunately, many people also get a higher risk of stroke.

Family history of stroke—meaning that you have a first-degree relative who has experienced either an ischemic (clotting) or hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke or an aneurysm—can increase your risk of stroke up to 30 percent.

For some people, the increased risk is tied to truly genetic conditions, such as sickle cell anemia or CADASIL (cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with sub-cortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy), a rare genetic disorder affecting the small blood vessels in the brain. Other non-modifiable risk factors include:

  • Age
  • Gender: Men have a higher risk than women
  • Ethnicity: African American and Hispanic populations have a higher risk than other ethnic groups

But it’s not all bad news. Many risk factors for stroke are ones that you can control.

Stroke risk factors you can control

At the top of the list, said Lauren E. Fournier, MD, a vascular neurologist on the medical staff and Stroke Division Director at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple, is high blood pressure, or hypertension.

“Blood pressure is something we can treat and control,” she said. “It runs in families, and people can be genetically prone to it. I always encourage patients to have a good relationship with their primary care doctor, have regular checkups and check their blood pressure regularly.”

Hypertension joins other treatable conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol, as well as factors such as obesity, high waist circumference, sedentary lifestyle, substance abuse and smoking.

Stopping smoking, in particular, can significantly cut stroke risk. But Dr. Fournier said, she never encourages patients to quit cold turkey, because it’s so difficult.

“Work on cutting back and eventually quitting,” she said. “Come up with a plan to quit, and that will dramatically decrease your risk.”

Simple steps to stroke prevention

Additional steps to lower your stroke risk—especially if you have a family history—include advice you’ve heard before: exercise, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking. The concepts are simple, but making lifestyle changes is hard. Really hard, Dr. Fournier said.

“I try to encourage people to get 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three to five days a week,” she said. “That is a good place to set goals, especially to prevent recurrence after someone has had a stroke, because unfortunately, stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States. You have to know your limitations and start somewhere, as small as it may be, and work your way up.”

The same is true for making dietary choices, such as cutting back on foods high in fat, cholesterol or sugar. She recommends you make small changes at first because it’s more sustainable than trying to make a massive lifestyle change.

How your primary care doctor can help

It’s important for everyone to have a good relationship with a primary care provider to keep an eye on their overall health and to detect and treat conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes before they become serious.

But if your family history puts you at an increased risk for stroke, Dr. Fournier said this relationship becomes essential. Your primary care provider can help you remain vigilant about monitoring and managing your modifiable conditions, including prescribing medications if appropriate.

Last, but definitely not least, Dr. Fournier said it’s essential for everyone to recognize the symptoms of stroke, which she teaches using the acronym BE FAST:

  • Balance difficulties
  • Eye problems
  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech changes
  • Time to call 911

If a stroke happens to you or someone you’re with, the faster you get to the hospital, the more possible it is to treat and even reverse some of the symptoms of stroke.

“You get one body. That’s all you get,” Dr. Fournier said. “So, taking your health in your own hands is something that everyone can do to achieve a longer, healthier life, and that’s always the goal.”

Are you at risk of stroke? Take our quiz and find out. If you need a primary care provider to help partner with you for better health, find one now.

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