Doctors agree: A stroke is one of the most serious and potentially debilitating health events someone may encounter in their lifetime.
Strokes can occur in two ways: when blood flow to the brain is blocked, which is considered an ischemic stroke, or because of sudden brain bleeds, which is called a hemorrhagic stroke.
Both are potentially deadly—but we all have at least some ability to prevent strokes and reduce risk. That said, there's one thing that many patients may do that can put them in danger of having a stroke.
The One Thing Stroke Doctors Say You Should Absolutely Never Do
Cardiologists and vascular neurologists agree that in terms of stroke risks, the absolute worst thing you can do is skip your regular medical checkups.
"There are some tests that patients can't do for themselves, such as blood tests for cholesterol and diabetes and EKG tests for atrial fibrillation," Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells Parade. "The patient-physician partnership can also be helpful for ensuring that someone is following a healthy diet and exercise regimen."
As for how often you should see your doctor, the answer to that question depends on how old you are.
"A nice rule of thumb for individuals without vascular or stroke risk factors or a family history of early stroke or heart attack should be to have check-ups with their primary care physician every three years during their 20s, every other year in their 30s and 40s, and every year in their 50s," Dr. José Morales, MD, vascular neurologist and neuro-interventional surgeon at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, says. "Regular check-ups are an important guardrail against our own inertia. As adults, we should remain diligent and committed to our current and future well-being. These visits can be opportunities for patients to collaborate with their physicians to align on and meet their health goals."
If you have a family history of stroke, you definitely want to get checked out more often, Dr. Morales advises.
"Ideally doctors can—by taking a thorough history—determine if any additional studies are needed to fully account for an individual's risk factors," he explains. "For example, someone with a first-degree relative who has suffered from a brain bleed may need vessel imaging to ensure they do not have an aneurysm or vascular malformation."
Another example, he says, may be someone with a parent who has been diagnosed with a blood clot and has evidence of a genetic factor that predisposes to blood clots. "They should also be tested to make sure they themselves are not similarly genetically predisposed. These advanced laboratory or imaging studies may reveal risk factors for stroke that patients would not have normally access to without being plugged into the healthcare system."
Another reason to see your doctor is in case you require medicines to mitigate your risk. "Some individuals will need medications to address their residual risk and only a medical provider can prescribe medications," Dr. Elizabeth Klodas, MD, cardiologist and founder of Step One Foods notes.
Stroke Risk Factors To Look Out For
Dr. Ernst von Schwarz, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and author of The Secrets of Immortality, says that the biggest risk factor for stroke is uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Because certain medications, including oral contraceptives, can impact blood pressure, it is super important to be completely transparent with your doctor about your habits, medications and any supplements you may take when assessing your personal stroke risk.
According to Dr. Klodas, other risk factors for stroke include:
High blood sugar
Family history of heart disease
Family history of stroke
Patients with end-stage kidney failure on dialysis also pose a significantly higher risk of stroke, Dr. von Schwarz notes.
Another huge risk factor for stroke that can compound the impacts of other risk factors? Smoking. The healthiest thing you can do for yourself is to quit!