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Learning About How to Prevent a Stroke

What is a stroke?

A stroke is damage to the brain that occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts or is blocked by a blood clot. Without blood and the oxygen it carries, part of the brain starts to die. The part of the body controlled by the damaged area of the brain can't work properly.

Brain damage can start within minutes of a stroke. But quick treatment can help limit the damage and increase the chance of a full recovery.

What puts you at risk for stroke?

A risk factor is anything that makes you more likely to have a particular health problem.

Risk factors for stroke that you can manage or change include:

  • Health problems like atrial fibrillation, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), and sickle cell disease.
  • Smoking.
  • Drinking too much alcohol or using recreational drugs. Your risk of harm from alcohol is low if you have 2 drinks or less per week, moderate if you have 3 to 6 drinks per week, and high if you have 7 or more drinks per week. Recreational drugs include cocaine, amphetamines, and cannabis.
  • Being overweight.
  • Not eating healthy foods.
  • Not getting enough physical activity.
  • Using hormone therapy. This includes taking hormone therapy for menopause or using birth control options with estrogen.

Risk factors you can't change include:

  • Having a previous stroke.
  • Family history of stroke.
  • Being older.
  • Being of Indigenous, African, or South Asian descent.
  • Being female.
  • Having certain problems during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia.
  • Being past menopause.

Your doctor can help you know your risk. Then you and your doctor can talk about whether to take steps to lower it.

How can you help prevent a stroke?

Here are some things you can do to help prevent a stroke.

  • Manage health problems that raise your risk. These include atrial fibrillation, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
  • Have a heart-healthy lifestyle.
    • Don't smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
    • If you drink alcohol, try to drink less. Your risk of harm from alcohol is low if you have 2 drinks or less per week, moderate if you have 3 to 6 drinks per week, and high if you have 7 or more drinks per week.
    • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
    • Be active. Get at least 2½ hours of moderate to vigorous exercise a week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
    • Eat heart-healthy foods. These include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Limit sodium and sugar.
    • If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.
  • If you use hormone therapy for menopause or hormonal birth control, talk with your doctor. Ask if these are right for you. They may raise the risk of stroke in some people.
  • Decide with your doctor whether you will also take medicines to help lower your risk. For example, you and your doctor may decide you will take a medicine that prevents blood clots.

What are the FAST stroke warning signs?

FAST is a simple way to remember the main symptoms of stroke. These symptoms happen suddenly. So knowing what to look for helps you know when to call for medical help.

FAST stands for:

  • F ace. Weakness or drooping on one side of the face.
  • A rm. Weakness or numbness in an arm or leg.
  • S peech. Trouble speaking.
  • T ime to call 911.

Other stroke symptoms include loss of balance or trouble walking, trouble seeing out of one or both eyes, sudden confusion, sudden trouble understanding simple statements, fainting, a seizure, and a sudden, severe headache.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

Symptoms of a stroke happen quickly. A stroke may cause:

  • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
  • Sudden vision changes.
  • Sudden trouble speaking.
  • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
  • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
  • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
  • Fainting.
  • A seizure.

It's important to call for medical help if you have stroke symptoms. Quick treatment may save your life. And it may reduce the damage in your brain so that you have fewer problems after the stroke.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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