Two significant risk factors for stroke, aneurysms and other brain illnesses include high blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol. By preventing these conditions, you can lower your risk of stroke, heart disease and other illnesses.
You can't change some risk factors, such as age, heredity and race. However, you can stay informed and take preventive steps — such as quitting smoking if you’re a smoker, exercising and improving your diet — if you're at higher risk. For example, people of African-American, Hispanic or Asian descent have unique stroke risk factors. Your doctor and care team will guide you based on your health history.
Fortunately, there are many risks you can change. High blood pressure is the most notable risk factor for stroke, brain aneurysms and other neurologic conditions. Even mild hypertension, untreated, can cause damage. Elevated blood pressure puts abnormal pressure on blood vessel walls, which can rupture at a weak spot. This can lead to a stroke or aneurysm. In addition, the scar tissue from torn vessels can trap cholesterol and blood cells. This can cause blood clots and plaque — a fatty buildup — to block your arteries.
High cholesterol may indirectly increase stroke risk by increasing your risk for heart disease, a major stroke risk factor. High cholesterol promotes atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque. This buildup puts additional pressure on blood vessel walls, which can lead to a rupture — similar to the effects of hypertension. In addition, plaque formation in the arteries to the brain can block normal blood flow and cause a stroke.
Know Your Cholesterol
There are two types of cholesterol:
- LDL cholesterol – Often referred to as “bad” cholesterol (L = Lousy) due to its artery-clogging properties. LDL carries cholesterol in your bloodstream to the tissues, where your body can use or store it. The plaque buildup can eventually narrow your arteries or block them completely, causing a heart attack or stroke.
- HDL cholesterol – HDL cholesterol (H = Happy) has the opposite effect of LDL cholesterol. HDL transports cholesterol from the tissues to the liver, where it's expelled from your body. High levels of this type of cholesterol tend to protect you from heart attack and stroke. A low HDL level can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
If you’ve had a stroke or previous heart attack, your cholesterol levels may need to be even lower than normally indicated ranges. Some people can manage cholesterol levels through diet and exercise alone, but many require cholesterol-lowering medication.
El Camino Health offers a variety of services to help you maintain good health, including free blood pressure checks and consultations with a dietitian, along with a wide range of classes and events.
Managing Existing Conditions
Ask your doctor about health conditions, such as those listed below, that could put you at greater risk of developing neurologic conditions. It's important to take control of your health to prevent stroke and other illness.
High blood glucose, poor circulation and other problems caused by diabetes can add to your risk of stroke. Managing diabetes may reduce your risk of brain illness or injury and cardiovascular complications. Your doctor will recommend diabetes-related tests to help you monitor your condition, make any needed medication and lifestyle changes, and prevent or delay damage.
Atrial Fibrillation (AF)
This type of heart arrhythmia causes your heart to quiver instead of beat normally. This can cause blood to pool and clot in your heart. If part of the blood clot leaves the heart and becomes lodged in the brain, it can cause a stroke. Treating AF is essential to preventing stroke. The American Stroke Association estimates that 15 percent of strokes occur in people with untreated AF.
El Camino Health's Norma Melchor Heart & Vascular Institute is among the first Bay Area centers to perform the LARIAT® procedure, a minimally invasive therapy designed to reduce stroke risk in people with AF. This catheter-based procedure is particularly beneficial for people with AF who can't take blood thinning medication, the standard treatment approach.