Strokes are one of the most sudden, life-changing illnesses in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they affect more than 795,000 people each year and lead to billions of dollars in health care costs. In just a few hours, a stroke can leave you with numerous and serious long-term health concerns.
But, what if it didn’t have to come to that? What if a few simple lifestyle changes could lower your stroke risk and prevent you from becoming another statistic? The good news is, you can. Up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable. Strokes are the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Stroke Association. To help raise continued awareness for World Stroke Day on Oct. 29, we compiled a list of ways you can adjust your lifestyle to reduce your risk of stroke.
Types of strokes
Before you make any lifestyle changes, it’s essential to know why you’re making these adjustments in the first place. These are the three types of strokes you should be familiar with.
A stroke can originate from a blockage or a rupture. In this case, an ischemic stroke occurs when an artery is too narrow or blocked, often from a blood clot or fatty deposit build-ups, preventing blood from flowing to your brain. Your brain can’t function without this blood, resulting in a stroke. High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of ischemic strokes.
About 87 percent of all strokes are ischemic and fall into one of two types: cerebral thrombosis or cerebral embolism. A cerebral thrombosis starts from a blood clot that halts blood flow to your brain. A cerebral embolism stems from a blood clot that forms in a different artery, such as an artery found in the heart or neck. The clot then dislodges and travels through your blood before it breaks off and blocks a blood vessel in your brain or that leads to your brain.
This stroke type starts in or near your brain, where blood leaks or ruptures, damaging brain tissue from swelling and built-up pressure. Hemorrhagic strokes account for 13 percent of all strokes.
Intracerebral hemorrhage is the most common type. A blood vessel ruptures, usually from high blood pressure, deep inside the brain. You’re less likely to experience a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which happens when an aneurysm ruptures in the tissues between the brain and skull. Smoking, high blood pressure and excessive alcohol use will put you more at risk for a subarachnoid hemorrhage.
Transient ischemic attack (T.I.A.)
Like ischemic strokes, blood clots commonly cause a T.I.A. They are referred to as “mini-strokes” because the clot blocks blood flow to the brain for only five minutes or so.
Don’t take a T.I.A. less seriously due to the word “mini.” It’s still a medical emergency and your symptoms are the same as a major stroke. A T.I.A. is a warning sign that future strokes are on the horizon. One-third of people who have a T.I.A. and don’t receive treatment will have another stroke within a year.
How to lower your stroke risk
Your age, family history, gender and race can all increase your stroke risk. Unfortunately, you can’t avoid these uncontrollable factors. What you can control are certain lifestyle factors that put you more at risk for a stroke. You can reduce your stroke risk by adopting the following behaviors.
Avoid high blood pressure
High blood pressure is the most significant risk factor for stroke. The higher the number, the more stress your blood puts on the artery walls. Over time, this constant pressure damages your blood vessels and causes them to weaken or narrow.
As we’ve mentioned, narrow blood vessels can cause blood clots that lead to ischemic strokes, while weak blood vessels can cause ruptures or blood to leak in your brain, leading to hemorrhagic strokes. Thankfully, there’s a common theme here, as many of the lifestyle changes mentioned below will help lower your blood pressure.
At one point, smoking was the leading cause of strokes. High blood pressure has since surpassed that, but quitting smoking is still a quick fix to lower your stroke risk — provided you also follow a proper diet and exercise regularly.
Smoking can damage blood vessels. Over time, the damage leads to blockages and prevents blood from getting to your brain. Cigarettes also contain nicotine and carbon monoxide that will impact your health. Filling your body with nicotine raises blood pressure levels, while carbon monoxide decreases the oxygen in your blood. Here are some tips to help you quit smoking.
Incorporate exercise into your routine
Aside from avoiding smoking and improving your diet, this is one of the easiest ways to reduce your stroke risk. Exercise, in general, has many health benefits. Specifically for stroke risk, regular exercise will help boost your blood vessels’ health. Healthy blood vessels are crucial in avoiding strokes, as your risk increases when they’re weak or narrow.
When combined with a proper diet, exercise will also help lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular issues.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet
Obesity can cause high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, a recipe for disaster in trying to prevent strokes. Diabetes doubles your chance of having a stroke. Even if you’re not overweight, the food choices you make — or don’t make — can still lead to high cholesterol.
A diet high in saturated and trans fat can lead to high cholesterol, resulting in plaque build ups in your arteries. Any blockages run the risk of developing a stroke. Not all fats are bad, though. You can read about the difference between saturated fat, trans fat and unsaturated fat here. Try incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Opt for whole grains, such as brown rice and oats, instead of simple carbohydrates. Seafood and lean cuts of meat will meet your protein cravings without loading up on saturated fats.
Limit sodium intake
Read labels! The aisles at your local grocery store are full of items that you typically wouldn’t associate with high-sodium foods. Take, for example, cereal. You associate this popular breakfast food with high sugar content. But, a glance at the nutrition labels will show one serving contains upwards of 10% of your daily recommended sodium intake.
In general, packaged foods are the biggest culprit of added sodium. The same goes for eating out at restaurants. Try to cook with fresh foods and vegetables and keep your salt shaker in the pantry as much as you can. For flavor, lean on fresh herbs and spices. Here are some tips on reducing sodium in your diet.
Cut back on alcohol
Socially drinking on the weekends is one thing, but cracking open a bottle of wine or your favorite whiskey each night of the week can become problematic. The American Stroke Association says more than one drink a day for women or more than two drinks a day for men can increase your blood pressure and increase your stroke risk.
COVID-19 and the risk of strokes
Initially, medical professionals viewed COVID-19 as a respiratory illness, one that affected your ability to breathe and how your lungs functioned. Throughout this pandemic, researchers have learned how its impact goes well beyond the lungs. Doctors are now seeing patients have issues with other organs, such as the kidneys and increased stroke risk.
A study earlier this year from researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian found that COVID-19 patients were seven times more at risk of developing an ischemic stroke than patients with the flu. The study analyzed 2,000 patients who were either hospitalized or required an emergency room visit due to COVID-19 symptoms. The overall stroke rate was low at 1.6%, but the key takeaway was how it differed from people who have the seasonal flu.
Why? Infections, regardless of where they occur, cause inflammation via an immune system response. It’s why your nose becomes congested, or you feel the constant need to cough due to inflamed lungs. Your body has cytokine proteins that alert the immune system of an infection. In some COVID-19 patients, an overproduction of cytokines leads to a cytokine storm, an exaggerated inflammatory response where the immune system attacks itself. This excess inflammation can damage your blood vessels and cause blood clots that lead to stroke.
That’s only part of the equation. COVID-19 can also increase your risk of cardiovascular complications, tied to heightened stroke risk. Organ failure is a concern for some COVID-19 patients. You’re more susceptible to a stroke if essential organs fail or aren’t functioning.
In the event of a stroke, B.E.F.A.S.T.
Strokes can still happen even though most instances are preventable. When they do occur, how you respond makes all the difference.
There’s something called the “Golden Hour” of strokes, which defines the first 60 minutes following a stroke and the importance of getting immediate treatment. Your odds of surviving and avoiding long-term damage are best if you receive a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) clot-busting drug within the first hour. Each hour left untreated can cause your brain to lose as many neurons as it does in almost 3.6 years of normal aging.
Detecting a stroke may seem like a complex task, but use the acronym BEFAST to remember common symptoms and a stroke’s warning signs.
- B – Balance. A loss of balance or the sudden inability to stand or walk.
- E – Eyes. A sudden loss of vision, changes in vision and blurred vision are symptoms of a stroke.
- F – Face. Ask the patient to “show your teeth” and smile. A crooked smile is an indicator of stroke.
- A – Arms. Ask the victim to hold up both arms with palms facing skyward. Look to see if one arm drifts down or cannot be lifted.
- S – Speech. Slurred or garbled speech indicates a stroke, as does a strange giggle while talking.
- T – Terrible headache. An explosive headache is the hallmark of a bleeding stroke.
Your leader for stroke care
At INTEGRIS Health, we treat ischemic stroke, intracerebral hemorrhage, aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage and transient ischemic attacks. Our specialized stroke services include a dedicated neuro intensive care unit and telestroke care. These services make us Oklahoma’s leader in stroke medicine.
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