Stroke might be a leading cause of death and disability, but according to a new study, it doesn't need to be that way. Recent findings have discovered that the vast majority of these instances — nine out of 10, to be precise — are preventable if people take a little time to take care of themselves.

The study, led by Dr. Martin O'Donnell and Dr. Salim Yusuf of the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster and collaborators from 32 countries, looked at 26,000 participants from 32 countries in Europe, Asia, America, Africa and Australia in a bid to find the main causes of stroke in diverse populations, young and old, men and women and within subtypes of stroke.

So, what were their findings? From their research, they discovered that there are 10 controllable risk factors that account for 90 percent of all strokes worldwide, with high blood pressure (hypertension) leading the pack.

"We have confirmed the 10 modifiable risk factors associated with 90 percent of stroke cases in all regions, young and older and in men and women," said study co-leader Dr. Martin O'Donnell. "The study also confirms that hypertension is the most important modifiable risk factor in all regions, and the key target in reducing the burden of stroke globally."

The researchers looked at the proportion of strokes caused by various risk factors and determined the percentage of strokes that would be eliminated if that particular risk factor was eliminated. For example, the findings showed that, by eliminating high blood pressure — the leading risk factor — the chances of a stroke dropped by nearly 48 percent.

As for the the other risk factors — physical inactivity, lipids, poor diet, obesity, smoking, cardiac causes, alcohol use, stress and diabetes — findings showed that the chances for a stroke would drop by 48, 27, 23, 19, 12, nine, six, six and four percent, respectively. These all amounted to 90.7 percent across all regions and age groups among both men and women. 

What made these findings so notable is that many of these risk factors are associated with one another. For example, someone who is struggling with diabetes or cardiac issues might also be obese. Similarly, a common way for people to deal with their stress is to drink alcohol. In all cases, these relations result in the same phenomena: the risk factors compound and can increase the chance of a stroke.

Even with these findings, however, the study authors noted that the importance of various risk factors varies in different regions. For example, high blood pressure causes about 39 percent of strokes in North America, Australia and Western Europe, but nearly 60 percent in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the risk of alcohol was lowest in Western Europe, North America and Australia but highest in Africa and South Asia.

In the end though, regardless of whichever of these had the most "importance," when combined in any given region, they always added up to 90.7 percent.

"Our findings will inform the development of global population-level interventions to reduce stroke, and how such programs may be tailored to individual regions, as we did observe some regional differences in the importance of some risk factors by region," said study co-leader Dr. Salim Yusuf.

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