You take your cholesterol meds, keep your blood pressure in check, don't smoke, and maybe you even exercise a few times a week. If that's the case, good news — you've neutralized some of the biggest risk factors for stroke and heart attack.
But the latest research indicates there may be even more you can do.
"What we are learning is that there is no single smoking gun when it comes to cardiovascular risk,” says Mitchell S.V. Elkind, M.D., a professor of neurology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and chair of the American Stroke Association Advisory Committee. “There are a lot of different physiological and pathophysiological processes going on inside blood vessels, and many different contributing factors."
About 800,000 Americans have a stroke every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and a major cause of disability among older adults, causing difficulty walking, memory loss and speech difficulties. Most strokes are triggered by a blood clot in the brain; in other cases, a blood vessel bursts.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking are the biggest risk factors, but they aren't the only ones. Here are some lesser-known factors that have been linked to a higher risk of stroke and heart attack, and what you can do about each:
1. Not enough (or too much) sleep
The evidence is mounting that skimping on sleep significantly increases your risk of stroke, says Elkind, who is also 2019-20 president-elect of the American Heart Association. In one study, for example, University of Alabama researchers found that regularly getting less than six hours of shuteye a night quadrupled the risk of stroke symptoms among middle-aged people of normal weight. Researchers say a lack of sleep may boost inflammation, stress hormones, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. But endless snoozing isn't the answer either, because other studies indicate that too much sleep also increases your risk. “The sweet spot you should shoot for is seven to eight hours a night,” Elkind says.