Harvard Women's Health Watch

Preventing stroke

You can do it — if you know your risks and take steps to reduce them.

Stroke is the sudden interruption of oxygen to part of the brain — whether caused by the blockage of an artery supplying the brain (ischemic stroke) or bleeding in the brain from a ruptured blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke). More than three million American women have had a stroke. It's the third most common cause of death in the United States, claiming the lives of nearly 100,000 women per year. It's also the nation's leading cause of long-term disability, robbing many survivors of their independence and causing dementia in up to 25% of them.

Like most other chronic conditions, stroke is caused by a combination of factors. Some are beyond our control. For example, stroke risk increases with age and is higher among African Americans. Blood vessel malformations and weaknesses, clotting disorders, and migraine headaches also increase the risk. So do a family history of stroke, a prior stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), and a heart attack or other heart condition (such as atrial fibrillation). But some of the most important risk factors — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, smoking, and lack of exercise — are things we can do something about.

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