Are You at Risk for Stroke? 8 Warning Signs to Know

A stroke can occur without warning. Lifestyle habits and genetics, however, can dictate whether a person is at an increased risk of having one.

7:00 AM

Author | Kevin Joy

If you're having any symptoms associated with a stroke, it's important to act quickly.

ASK ALEXA: Add the Michigan Medicine News Break to Your Flash Briefing

But certain risk factors can set the stage for stroke well in advance — regardless of your age — which is why a lifetime of awareness and healthful habits is key.

"Many people think of stroke as a disease of more elderly individuals," says Cemal B. Sozener, M.D., M. Eng., co-director of the Comprehensive Stroke Program at Michigan Medicine. "We never want people experiencing symptoms to say, 'Well, it must be something else.'"

Stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain breaks, kills about 140,000 Americans each year. It is also a major cause of long-term disability and lost mobility.

Although some risk factors of a stroke are genetic, others are tied to lifestyle choices. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 3 Americans have at least one condition associated with higher stroke risk.

Sozener explained some of those factors:

Risk factors for stroke

High blood pressure: A "tried-and-true and very potent risk factor," untreated hypertension can cause blockage and calcification in blood vessels over time, ultimately restricting blood flow to the brain, Sozener notes. And because many patients with high blood pressure aren't diagnosed or delay a visit to seek treatment, the risk is often greater than it should be.  

Smoking: Those who smoke have blood that's stickier and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain. Smoking also causes blood vessels to thicken and narrow, which can inhibit the body's optimal circulation. "Stopping smoking is one of the most important things patients can do to prevent serious illness such as stroke in the future," Sozener says. 

MORE FROM MICHIGAN: Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Heart disease: Carotid or peripheral artery diseases, both of which cause narrowed arteries, require treatment to avoid stroke. So, too, does atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. "The top chambers are often not pumping in coordinated fashion," Sozener says. "When blood isn't flowing smoothly and stays still, it clots — and there's a risk of that clot breaking free.

Diabetes: The health conditions that some people with diabetes experience — obesity plus high blood pressure and cholesterol — are what put those people at a higher likelihood for stroke, especially in the long run. "People think diabetes causes stroke immediately but, in general, being poorly controlled over time is what predisposes an increased risk," Sozener says.

Obesity, inactivity and diet: Excess body weight, a lack of movement and junk food all put strain on the body, which can contribute to heart disease as well as high cholesterol and blood pressure. Avoid trans and saturated fats, curb excess calories and reduce sodium in your diet. Strive for 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week. 

Age and gender: Young people aren't immune to stroke, but the risk does go up with age. "The vast majority of stroke patients will be over the age of 50," Sozener says. "But stroke can certainly occur in all populations, even children." Women suffer more strokes (and die from them) than men, due in part to gender-specific factors such as pregnancy and birth control pills.

Ethnicity: You can't choose your heritage, but some backgrounds are more commonly linked with stroke. Among them: blacks and Hispanics. This is partially because social and environmental factors might hinder access to basic medical care. "Untreated hypertension is much more common in blacks," Sozener says. "And diabetes has a higher prevalence in Hispanics."

Prior stroke and family history: Stroke survivors — or those with a sibling, parent or grandparent who has had one — have a greater risk, the American Stroke Association says. So, too, are patients who have had a transient ischemic attack (known as a TIA, or "mini stroke"). Says Sozener: "TIA can be a warning sign of a future stroke" in those individuals.

More Articles About: Preventative health and wellness Stroke Prevention Preventing Stroke stroke
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories A graphic of the brain
News Release
University of Michigan researchers receive Javits Award for work on stroke health disparities in Mexican Americans
Two University of Michigan researchers have received the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for their work on stroke health disparities in Mexican Americans. The $5 million in funding allows the Texas-based research project to reach a 32-year milestone and expand to 35-to-44-year-olds whose incidence of stroke is increasing.
man smiling with cupcakes glasses
Health Lab
Two heart transplants, one message for organ donation
A patient who has received two heart transplants years apart shares his story and the importance of advocating for organ donation.
Exterior photograph of an urgent care clinic
Health Lab
Thinking outside the doctor’s office: How older adults use urgent care & in-store clinics
In the past two years, 60% of people age 50 to 80 have visited an urgent care clinic, or a clinic based in a retail store, workplace or vehicle, according to new findings from the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.
Graphic showing pills, a heart and brain with data on aspirin use
Health Lab
Aspirin can prevent a second heart attack or stroke, but many don’t use it
Washington University School of Medicine and Michigan Medicine researchers found that fewer than half of people who have experienced a heart attack or stroke use aspirin to prevent a second one.
Drawing of parent trying to get child's attention who is listening to music on headphones
Health Lab
Are headphones and earbuds exposing your children to noise health risks?
2 in 3 parents in national poll say their child ages 5-12 use personal audio devices; pediatrician offers 4 tips to reduce noise exposure risks
Woman sweating hot flash fan
Health Lab
Menopause and migraines: New findings point to power of prevention
Women who have both migraines and a long-term history of hot flashes and/or night sweats have a slightly higher risk of heart disease and stroke, and young women who have migraines have a higher risk of later persistent menopause symptoms.