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The #1 Cause of Stroke, According to Science

And, here’s how to avoid having one in the first place.

According to the American Heart Association, someone in the United States suffers a stroke every 40 seconds—and every four minutes, loses their life due to one. In total, over 795,000 people have a stroke every year in the United States alone, making it a leading cause of death, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What exactly is a stroke, who is most likely to have one, and what is the number one cause of the potentially deadly medical event? Read on to find out—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You Had COVID and Didn't Know It.


What Is Stroke? 

CT scan of brain with red area for hemorrhagic stroke

A stroke, sometimes called a brain attack, occurs as a result of one of two events, Farhad Bahrassa, MD, Yale Medicine neurosurgeon and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, explains to Eat This, Not That! "A stroke is a medical emergency where there is a sudden change in brain function usually due to a sudden decrease of blood supply to a part of the brain, but sometimes it is due to bleeding in the brain," he says. 


What Happens If You Have It?

Woman hands on his head felling headache dizzy sense of spinning dizziness with motion

When you have a stroke, "the lack of blood supply prevents nutrients and oxygen from getting to part of the brain," Dr. Bahrassa explains. "The brain cells stop functioning and can quickly die without oxygen and nutrients."  Per the CDC there are two types of strokes, both of which damage brain cells and in turn, symptoms start to show in the parts of the body those brain cells control. 

Ischemic Stroke: This type occurs when blood vessels to the brain are blocked by blood clots or other particles. 

Hemorrhagic Stroke: A hemorrhagic stroke is the result of a blood vessel bursting in the brain. "Blood builds up and damages surrounding brain tissue," the CDC explains. 


How Do I Know I Have It?

symptom of stroke cerebral. asymmetry of the face. angioedema

As previously mentioned, when you have a stroke symptoms will arise related to the part of the brain that stops working. "Common symptoms are sudden weakness or paralysis on one side of the body (arm and/or leg), weakness or drooping on one side of the face (especially when trying to smile), numbness on one side of the body, trouble producing speech or trouble understanding speech, vision loss, and problems with balance or coordination," reveals Dr. Bahrassa. 

During a stroke, every minute counts, and getting immediate treatment can decrease the brain damage that stroke can cause, explains the CDC. This is why knowing the signs and symptoms is crucial so you can take action. There is a helpful acronym to identify a stroke—F.A.S.T.— and the CDC suggests the following simple test:

F—Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A—Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

S—Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?

T—Time: If you see any of these signs, call 9-1-1 right away.

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Here Are the Top Contributing Factors

Doctor Checking High Blood Pressure In Face Mask

While anyone can have a stroke, regardless of age or background, there are a number of factors that can increase risk, per Yale Medicine. Age is one of the biggest factors, with the risk of having a stroke doubling every 10 years after 55. However, in rare cases, younger people and even infants can suffer a stroke. Genetics are also influential, as a combination of hereditary and lifestyle factors—including high blood pressure, diabetes or abnormally high cholesterol—can contribute. Gender also comes into play, as women are more likely to have a stroke and die from one than men. About 20 percent of women will have a stroke in her lifetime and strokes are even more deadly for women than breast cancer, killing twice as many women annually. And finally, lifestyle choices can also impact stroke risk. Smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and drug use—specifically cocaine and amphetamines—up your risk of stroke. 

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What Is the Number One Cause? 

Doctor team diagnose brain stroke and blood vessels x-ray image for analysis cerebrovascular disease or hemorrhagic stroke by mra brain.

Ultimately, Bahrassa maintains that most strokes are caused by a blockage of an artery supplying blood to the brain. "The underlying medical condition that leads to the blockage is not always known," he says. "Some common causes are an irregular heart rhythm (particularly atrial fibrillation), plaque buildup in the arteries (especially carotid artery), and conditions leading to blood clots."

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How to Prevent It

woman with medicine jars at home

Stroke prevention has many parts, Dr. Bahrassa reveals. This includes getting and maintaining regular medical care by a primary care provider, quitting smoking, getting control of risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes usually by taking medications as prescribed, taking blood thinner medications as prescribed when appropriate, eating healthy, getting regular aerobic exercise, limiting alcohol use, and avoiding illegal drugs.

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What to Do If You Notice Symptoms 

Hand Holding Smartphone With Emergency Number 911 On The Screen

When it comes to a stroke, taking action immediately can save your life and prevent further damage to your brain. "Immediately at the time stroke symptoms occur, call 911," orders Dr. Bahrassa. And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah
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