According to the CDC, every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a stroke, and every 3.5 minutes, someone dies of a stroke. Although these are scary statistics, in many cases a stroke can be prevented or the harm done can be reduced if one better understands what a stroke is and how to identify one in time to get help.

What is a Stroke?

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. This can be due to a blocked artery or bleeding in the brain. When this happens, the lack of oxygen and nutrients causes brain cells to die.

There are three primary types of strokes:

  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA) involves a blood clot that typically reverses on its own.
  • Ischemic stroke involves a blockage caused by either a clot or plaque in the artery. The symptoms and complications of ischemic stroke can last longer than those of a TIA or may become permanent.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke is caused by either a burst or leaking blood vessel that seeps into the brain.

Symptoms of a Stroke

The loss of blood flow to the brain damages tissues within the brain. Symptoms of a stroke show up in the body parts controlled by the damaged areas of the brain. 

The sooner a person having a stroke gets care, the better their outcome is likely to be. For this reason, it’s helpful to know the signs of a stroke so you can act quickly. Stroke symptoms can include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Confusion or trouble understanding other people
  • Trouble speaking or understanding others
  • Seizures
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Severe headache with no known cause

If you or someone else exhibit any of these signs, call 911 right away.

Risk Factors for a Stroke

Many things can increase your risk of stroke. Some of these are modifiable risk factors, which means you can change them. Other stroke risk factors are non-modifiable, meaning you cannot change them.


Diet – An unbalanced diet can increase the risk of stroke. This type of diet is high in:

  • salt
  • saturated fats
  • trans fats
  • cholesterol


Inactivity – Inactivity, or lack of exercise, can also raise the risk of stroke. Regular exercise has several health benefits. The CDC recommends that adults get at least 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise every week. This can mean simply a brisk walk a few times a week.


Heavy alcohol use – The risk of stroke also increases with heavy alcohol use. If you drink, drink in moderation. This means no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men. Heavy alcohol use can raise blood pressure levels. It can also raise triglyceride levels, which can cause atherosclerosis. This is plaque buildup in the arteries that narrows blood vessels.


Tobacco use – Using tobacco in any form also raises the risk of stroke, since it can damage the blood vessels and heart. Nicotine also raises blood pressure. 


Personal background – There are some risk factors for stroke you can’t control, such as:

  • Family history. Stroke risk is higher in some families because of genetic health factors, such as high blood pressure.
  • Sex. While both women and men can have strokes, they’re more common in women than in men in all age groups.
  • Age. The older you are, the more likely you are to have a stroke.
  • Race and ethnicity. African Americans, Alaska Natives, and American Indians are more likely to have a stroke than other racial groups. 

Health History – Certain medical conditions are linked to stroke risk. These include:

  • A previous stroke or TIA
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Carrying too much excess weight
  • Heart disorders, such as coronary artery disease
  • Heart valve defects
  • Enlarged heart chambers and irregular heartbeats
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Diabetes
  • Blood clotting disorder

If you suspect you may be experiencing symptoms of a stroke, seek emergency medical treatment as soon as possible. Early treatment is one of the most effective ways to reduce your risk of long-term complications and disability.