By Michelle Cemental
Strokes are a serious issue for Americans, causing 1 out of every 20 deaths in the United States. With someone in the US suffering a stroke every 40 seconds, it’s important to understand all the risk factors that contribute to this widespread medical condition — especially since seniors are at a higher risk than other age groups.
While you or your loved one may be able to decrease their risk of stroke through lifestyle changes, there are several chronic conditions that directly contribute to the risk of stroke. Let’s take a closer look at some of the diseases and conditions associated with stroke so that you can stay educated and informed about your risks.
What Is a Stroke?
To understand which diseases increase the risk of stroke, it’s important to grasp what happens in your body during a stroke. It all comes down to blood flow to the brain.
Normally, your arteries are responsible for transporting blood from your heart to your brain. When you have a stroke, one of these vital blood vessels either bursts or is blocked by a blood clot. Since this stops the flow of blood, nutrients, and oxygen to certain parts of your brain, it causes brain cells and brain tissue to rapidly die.
How you’re affected by a stroke depends upon which blood vessels became blocked, in which areas of the brain. For example, a stroke that targets the right side of the brain can cause vision problems, memory loss, and paralysis on the left side of the body. Though strokes can cause serious issues, it’s definitely possible to improve your chances of recovery with time, patience, medical assistance, and special exercises.
Diseases that Increase the Risk of Stroke
To keep you and your loved ones safe and prepare for the risk of stroke, it’s important to recognize the symptoms and understand the timeline of a stroke. However, knowing which diseases increase the risk for stroke can also help you get help and take preventative measures.
Carotid Artery Disease
If you press gently against your neck on the left or right side, you can feel your carotid arteries pumping vital, oxygen-rich blood to your brain. In carotid artery disease, these vital vessels that supply the brain become blocked. Usually, people carotid artery disease is caused by atherosclerosis, which is when the blood vessels become blocked by plaque over time. This can cause a stroke in 2 ways:
- If the carotid artery becomes too clogged up with plaque, it can stop the blood flow to your brain and cause a stroke.
- In other cases, blood clots or plaque can detach from a blood vessel, move through the bloodstream, and block an artery to the brain.
If you or a loved one has carotid artery disease, your physician might give you medication like anti-platelet medication or blood pressure medication to help reduce the risk of stroke.
Heart Conditions: Coronary Artery Disease and Atrial Fibrillation
Stroke risk and heart disease go hand in hand. The most common form of heart disease is called coronary artery disease (CAD). Just like the name suggests, CAD impacts the coronary arteries, which supply blood to nourish the heart itself. Like carotid artery disease, CAD is usually caused by atherosclerosis. As plaque builds up in the coronary arteries, it can sometimes cause a rupture which causes the body to create a blood clot. If this blood clot then breaks free, this can travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
Another common heart condition is called atrial fibrillation (AFib). To understand atrial fibrillation, it’s important to know that you have 4 chambers in your heart: 2 atria and 2 ventricles. In AFib, the top two chambers of the heart can beat more quickly than normal, in an irregular rhythm. In turn, this prevents blood from circulating properly around the heart. When blood pools in the heart as a result of this irregular heartbeat, it can form a clot, travel to the brain, and cause a stroke. Luckily, with intervention and treatment,it’s possible to prevent up to 80% of strokes caused by AFib.
Sickle Cell Disease
You might already have been aware of the links between stroke and heart disease, but did you know that sickle cell disease is also a risk factor for strokes? Sickle cell is a genetic disease that changes the shape and function of blood cells.
Ordinary blood cells are doughnut-shaped disks (without the hole in the middle) that are designed to smoothly move through blood vessels. They contain a protein called hemoglobin which helps transport oxygen throughout the body. In contrast, sickle cellshave an abnormal form of hemoglobin. This causes the cells to not only change from disk-shaped to crescent-shaped, but also causes the cells to become stickier and move less smoothly through blood vessels.
In addition to inhibiting the flow of oxygen around the body, sticky sickle cells can start to stick to vessel walls. Over time, this can clog important blood vessels that nourish the brain, and lead to a stroke. If you or a loved one has sickle cell disease, work closely with your doctor to manage symptoms to help reduce the risk of stroke.
In people 65 years or older with diabetes, 16% will die of a stroke. This startling statistic is due to the way diabetes impacts your heart health and, therefore, raises your risk of stroke.
How does this work? Well, diabetes occurs when a person’s body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or doesn’t use insulin the way it’s supposed to. Without insulin processing sugar in the body, a person’s blood sugar (or blood glucose) can get dangerously high. This is known as hyperglycemia and is often managed by lifestyle changes and insulin medication.
Over time, high blood glucose can damage your blood vessels. This, in turn, raises the chances that the blood flow to your brain will be interrupted, causing a stroke. If you or a loved one has diabetes, it’s important to keep track of your blood glucose levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure to reduce your risk of stroke.
High Blood Pressure & High Cholesterol
Though high blood pressure and high cholesterol aren’t technically diseases themselves, having either of these conditions seriously increases your risk of stroke. Often, they go hand-in-hand with diseases like diabetes, carotid artery disease, and heart disease. High blood pressure and high cholesterol can exist together, or they can exist independently of each other. Here’s how each condition increases your risk of a stroke.
- High Blood Pressure: If you have high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, it means that there’s extra pressure on your arteries. Over time, this increased pressure can damage your blood vessels and make them more likely to burst or clog, leading to a stroke.
- High Cholesterol: Everyone has the fatty substance called cholesterol in their blood. However, when cholesterol levels rise too high, it can build up in the arteries and cause blockages.
If you have hypertension, high cholesterol, or both, your doctor can help you manage and control your symptoms to decrease your risk of serious conditions like heart disease and stroke.
Although many people might not automatically think of obesity as a disease, it has been recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association (AMA) since 2013. Being severely overweight is caused by a variety of factors like metabolism, genetics, and hormones that are often difficult to control. And considering that 66% of Americans are either overweight or obese, it’s very important to understand the links between obesity and stroke risk.
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, there are several ways in which being severely overweight can make someone more prone to strokes. For example, people who are obese are more prone to sleep apnea, which is a risk factor for strokes. They’re also more prone to have high blood pressure. In addition, too much fatty tissue can lead to inflammation in the body which impacts blood flow and increases your risk of stroke.