Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;68(12):2389-2390

What is a stroke?

A stroke happens when there is a problem with the blood supply to a part of the brain. The area of the brain that does not get enough blood becomes damaged.

A stroke can happen when a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain. A stroke also can happen when the wall of an artery bursts.

Depending on which part of the brain has poor blood supply, a stroke can be mild to severe. Here are some problems strokes can cause:

  • Problems with moving (including paralysis)

  • Problems with feeling

  • Loss of vision

  • Problems with thinking, understanding, or communicating (that is, problems with speaking, reading, or writing)

  • Changes in emotion or behavior

What increases my risk of having a stroke?

Strokes can happen in anyone, but they tend to be more common in older men, black people, and Asian people. Although we cannot change our age, gender, or race, we can control the following risk factors for stroke:

  • Tobacco use

  • High cholesterol levels

  • Inactive lifestyle

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • Heavy alcohol use

  • Atrial fibrillation, which is an unsteady heart rhythm (say: ay-tree-all fib-rill-ay-shun)

What can I do to lower my risk of having a stroke?

Here are some things everyone can do to lower their chances of having a stroke—these things will also lower your risk of having a heart attack:

  • Get your blood pressure checked regularly and get treatment if it is high. High blood pressure is a “silent” illness with no warning signs.

  • If you smoke—stop! Ask your family doctor for ways to help you quit.

  • Eat low-fat foods, and have your cholesterol levels checked by your family doctor.

  • Exercise regularly—for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

  • Keep your weight under control. If you are overweight, lose weight.

  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar levels. Controlling your diabetes will help your heart, kidneys, eyes, and brain.

Can medicine help lower my risk of stroke?

Medicines can help prevent strokes in some people. If you need one of these medicines, your family doctor will prescribe it for you.

If you have high blood pressure, and diet, exercise, and weight loss do not control it, you may need to take medicine to lower your blood pressure. Lowering blood pressure in people who have hypertension is the most important way to prevent stroke.

If your cholesterol level is high and exercise and diet do not lower it, you may need to take a cholesterol-lowering medicine.

If you have atrial fibrillation, you may need to take a blood thinner such as warfarin (brand name: Coumadin).

Aspirin can lower the risk of stroke in some people. However, aspirin is not for everyone. There are risks associated with taking aspirin every day.

Where can I find more information about stroke prevention?

Talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower your risk of having a stroke. You also can contact one of these groups:

  • American Heart Association (AHA) and

  • American Stroke Association (ASA) National Centers

  • 7272 Greenville Avenue

  • Dallas, TX 75231

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Information Center

  • PO. Box 30105

  • Bethesda, MD 20824-0105

  • Telephone: 1-301-592-8573

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