A stroke can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. However, there are risk factors and warning signs to be aware of to combat stroke and increase a victim’s survival rate.

“A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery or a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain,” says Carmen T. Ramirez, M.D., clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. “When either of these things happens, brain cells begin to die, and brain damage occurs.”

Two types of risk factors predispose you to stroke: modifiable and fixed. Modifiable factors – those that can be changed with healthy lifestyle choices – include hypertension and high cholesterol, diabetes, diet and activity, and tobacco use.

“Hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes can be managed with careful consideration and the guidance of your physician,” Dr. Ramirez says. “Eating right and leading an active rather than sedentary lifestyle are also things you can control.”

As for tobacco, Dr. Ramirez emphasizes, “Even recreational use of tobacco products can significantly increase your risk for stroke.”

Fixed risk factors for stroke include your age, gender, genetics and ethnicity. For instance, African-Americans and Hispanics are more at risk for stroke than other ethnic groups. Women also experience a higher incidence of stroke than men.

“There are 55,000 more strokes a year in females versus males,” Dr. Ramirez says. “This has been associated with certain hormones, especially estrogen, and with women living longer.”

Warning signs that can signal the onset of stroke include sudden weakness or numbness, slurred speech or the inability to express or comprehend speech, acute vision loss or double vision, vertigo (the sensation of spinning, movement or dizziness), and sudden gait instability.

If you exhibit these signs, call 911 or get to a hospital immediately.

“Take note of abnormalities and changes,” Dr. Ramirez advises. “A stroke victim’s success in long-term treatment will depend on how quickly the signs of stroke are recognized and how quickly the patient is treated.”

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