What Causes a Stroke?

What Causes a Stroke?

The idea of a stroke can be frightening —it’s scary to think about healthy individuals dying suddenly, or losing the ability to move or speak.

But despite the fact that stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and the third-highest cause of death among women, many Americans don’t think of it as a health concern, and aren’t always aware of the symptoms.

But strokes don’t have to be a source of fear and mystery. As Virtua neurologist Arun Kachroo, MD explains, understanding the root causes of stroke can help you to prevent them in the future.

Understanding Strokes

A stroke occurs when the blood flow to a section of the brain becomes obstructed.  The primary types of stroke are:

Ischemic: This type is caused by a clot or obstruction in a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. These account for 87% of all stroke cases. 

Hemorrhagic: This type occurs when a weakened blood vessel ruptures. This is often due to high blood pressure.

TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack): Often called a “mini stroke,” TIAs are temporary events that can often serve as a warning of future problems. 

“Unfortunately, diseases don’t read textbooks,” explains Dr. Kachroo. “Strokes may present with different or unusual symptoms, and even as a neurologist, I can’t always tell that someone is having a stroke until I’ve seen the individual's MRI.”

Signs of a stroke can include:

  • Weakness to a specific area of the body
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Temporary loss of vision
  • Speech impairment

Stroke symptoms often occur suddenly, and often only on one side of the body. If this happens you should be suspicious, especially if you have risk factors.

Risk Factors for Strokes

The leading causes of strokes are similar to those that contribute to heart disease. These health issues are widely understood, and can be treated by you and your doctor. Some of the key causes are:

  • High blood pressure 
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart and artery disease 
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Poor diet 
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity 

There are other risk factors that you have less control over, such as age and heredity. There are also factors which contribute to a higher rate of stroke in women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while stroke is the fifth-highest average cause of death among men, it’s the third-highest amongst women. Some conditions that can lead to stroke in women include:

  • Use of oral contraceptives
  • Pregnancy
  • History of preeclampsia/eclampsia
  • Post-menopausal hormone use
  • Migraine headaches with aura

This doesn’t mean that women should refrain from pregnancy, contraceptive or hormone use, or normal sexual activity. It simply means that they need to be concerned about other risk factors, and discuss options with their doctor, especially after menopause.

Surviving Strokes

According to Dr. Kachroo, “The good news is that the majority of strokes are manageable, and very few of those who suffer a stroke are bed bound and paralyzed. Patients can recover, and survive, and that gives us an opportunity to prevent another devastating stroke in the future. The sooner we can treat you, the better you’ll do.”

Updated June 6, 2016

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