The Link Between Obesity and Stroke: Risk Factors

Obesity is a complex chronic disease associated with excess weight that impacts over 40% of adults in the United States. If you have obesity, you are at an increased risk of developing health problems associated with other chronic conditions, including stroke. In the United States, stroke is a leading cause of death and disability; someone suffers from a stroke every 40 seconds, impacting over 795,000 people.

Since obesity is a risk factor for stroke, it is important to understand the link between obesity and stroke. In this article, we will explore the risk factors for stroke related to obesity and discuss the ways to lessen these risks.

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A stroke usually occurs when a blood vessel in the brain is blocked by a blood clot (ischemic stroke) or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts (hemorrhagic stroke), resulting in brain damage.2 Signs and symptoms of stroke include sudden onset of the following symptoms: 

  • Numbness or weakness in the body
  • Confusion or trouble speaking
  • Changes in vision
  • Loss of balance
  • Severe headache 

Since obesity is a risk factor for stroke, it is important to understand the link between obesity and stroke.3 In this article, we will explore the risk factors for stroke related to obesity and discuss the ways to lessen these risks.

How Your Weight Affects Your Brain Health

Obesity can increase the risk of stroke through complex mechanisms that occur as you gain weight.3 With weight gain comes an increase in adipose tissue, known as body fat, which leads to changes in adipose cell quantity and size.3 This releases an immune response and results in a decrease in helpful hormones that can provide blood vessel protection.3 Weight gain also increases overall inflammation and contributes to insulin resistance and high glucose levels, especially if you have obesity.3 If you are overweight, you should talk with your healthcare provider and consider additional testing to assess glucose levels and cholesterol levels to better understand your risk.3

The Hidden Dangers of Obesity: Secondary Risk Factors for Stroke

Obesity increases stroke risk in multiple ways. Secondary risk factors for stroke don’t directly cause a stroke, but can significantly increase your risk of having a stroke. These risk factors are important because being able to identify and eliminate them can help lower your risk of experiencing a stroke. Secondary risk factors for stroke that are associated with obesity include diabetes mellitus, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol,  and obstructive sleep apnea.3 

Diabetes increases stroke risk due to the presence of an excess of glucose in the blood, which can damage blood vessels.4 Blood vessels may become stiff or result in plaque build up in the arteries which can result in the formation of a blood clot and potentially a stroke.4 If you have diabetes, you are twice as likely to have a stroke as someone without diabetes.5

Cardiovascular disease refers to disease of the heart and includes several heart conditions, such coronary heart disease, heart failure, and arrhythmias. Heart disease is another leading cause of death in the United States.5 High blood pressure,  high cholesterol, and obesity  are major risk factors for heart disease. These conditions increase your stroke risk due to their ability to cause blood clots and plaque build up in the arteries.5

If you have sleep apnea, you are at an increased risk of having an ischemic stroke.6  An ischemic stroke occurs as a result of a blood vessel to the brain becoming blocked.2,6 This risk exists because the amount of blood that is able to flow to your brain is reduced and your body may not get enough oxygen to function properly if you have sleep apnea.6

How to Minimize Your Risk of Stroke

Lifestyle changes play a major role in reducing stroke risk. Weight loss is one of the single most effective ways to decrease your stroke risk, especially if you are overweight. Weight loss can be obtained by focusing on lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise.7 Incorporating a calorie reduced  diet and at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week are ways you can work towards achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight.7 Some examples of moderate intensity exercise include taking a brisk walk or going for a bike ride around your neighborhood. 

If you struggle with weight loss on your own, weight loss medications are available and may be beneficial. Click here to explore options for weight loss medications.

It is also important to make your health a priority and follow up with your health care team regularly. Routine check-ups and health screenings allow for close monitoring for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other health conditions related to increased stroke risk.7 Early detection is an important key to managing these conditions and further reducing your stroke risk.

Overcoming Obesity After Having a Stroke

If you have a stroke, you may gain weight due to post-stroke challenges such as having difficulty moving some parts of your body, losing some or all of your senses, or experiencing other behavioral and emotional changes.8 1 out of every 4 stroke survivors will likely have another stroke within 5 years.9 Although achieving and maintaining a healthy weight may be more difficult for stroke patients, it is an important part of preventing stroke recurrence and facilitating the recovery process. It can also reduce the risk of complications during recovery and help you improve your overall health in the process. Work with your healthcare team to come up with a plan to overcome obesity that is safe and effective.

Bottom Line

Obesity is a major risk factor for stroke, but it is treatable. Proactive steps to lose weight include eating a healthy diet and participating in regular physical activity. There are secondary risk factors associated with stroke that may also be prevented or treated.  It is important to regularly follow-up with your health care team for check ups and routine health screenings. 

If you have already had a stroke, stroke recovery may be difficult. Remember it is never too late to prioritize your health, make healthier choices, and reduce your risk of having another stroke.

How you choose to approach and control your health today can have a significant impact on your health in the future. Making lifestyle changes can feel overwhelming but taking even the smallest steps to incorporate healthier habits can make a big difference.

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