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Risk Factors We Can’t Change

Age: People of all ages can have a stroke, but the older the person the higher the risk. In fact, the risk of stroke more than doubles for each decade of life after age 55. As people age, they tend to develop many risk factors for stroke. For example, their arteries tend to harden and become less elastic, making them prone to rupture or blockage.

Although stroke often is considered a disease of the elderly, about 25 percent occur in people younger than 65 years. In fact, every year, five out of every 200,000 children have a stroke. It can even happen in utero.

The causes of stroke in children tend to be quite different from the usual ones in adults. Children haven’t had the time to develop hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) or other long-term effects of hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking that are among the most common stroke risk factors in adults. Causes can vary according to a child’s age and can include:

  • Brain infections acquired in the uterus or during or after birth
  • Premature birth (for example, inadequately developed blood clotting mechanisms and immature, fragile blood vessels)
  • Birth defects of the heart or brain
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Severe infections
  • Metabolic disorders

Gender: Men have a higher risk for stroke (1.25 times that of women), but more women die from stroke. Women account for three out of every five stroke deaths. This may be due in part to the fact that men do not live as long as women so they are usually younger when they have their strokes and are better able to survive the insult.

Nearly one in five women over 45 will have a stroke by age 85. Among women worldwide, stroke is the number 2 cause of death and number 1 cause of disability.

Ethnicity & Heredity: Stroke is more common in people whose close relatives have suffered stroke. This appears to indicate certain genetic “predispositions” within families that put them at greater risk for stroke.

African-Americans have a higher risk of death from stroke than do Caucasians. This is partly because African-Americans have a higher incidence of many of the risk factors for stroke. For example, high blood pressure tends to occur earlier in African-Americans and be more severe. Sickle cell disease (sickle cell anemia) — a genetic disorder primarily affecting African-Americans — is a risk factor for stroke because "sickled" red blood cells are less able to carry oxygen to the body's tissues and organs. They also tend to stick to blood vessel walls, which can block arteries to the brain.

African-Americans, along with Hispanics, American Indians and Asians, appear to be at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

For Pacific Asians and South Asians, the general tendency of developing intracranial (inside the brain) plaque build up is much higher than the Caucasian population as opposed to the carotid disease in the neck.