Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States experiences a stroke. In 2016, someone died of a stroke roughly every three to four minutes. What’s more, among all the causes of death in the country, stroke is ranked No. 5—and those who don’t die are likely to sustain long-term disabilities, per statistics from the American Heart Association.|
For those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid its impact, the American Stroke Association defines a stroke "a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain." A stroke is caused by a blockage in the blood vessels that leads to the brain, resulting in brain cells being depleted of the blood and oxygen they need to function. The blockage can be caused by a clot or by a ruptured blood vessel. There are several different types of strokes of varying causes and impacts, but they all should be taken seriously.
Those are some scary numbers and facts—but by increasing your awareness of stroke signs and risk factors, you can take the first steps toward prevention.
Signs of a Possible Stroke
Dr. Robert Segal, MD, cardiologist and co-founder of LabFinder.com, identifies these common symptoms of a stroke:
If you think you or someone around you might be having a stroke, it is essential to call 911 (or have someone else call) right away.
Risk Factors That Cannot Be Controlled
Some people are naturally more predisposed to having a stroke, due to certain uncontrollable factors:
Risk Factors That Can Be Controlled
Even if you have some of the uncontrollable factors listed above, there are steps you can take to reduce your stroke risk. Most of these involve healthier lifestyle choices.
According to Dr. Allen Conrad of the Montgomery County Chiropractic Center, excess body fat can lead to inflammation, which can affect blood flow and possible blockages, increasing the risk of stroke.
To reduce the chances of stroke, take steps to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight: namely, eating a nutritious, sensible diet within a target calorie range and incorporating regular exercise.
"The exercise will have a twofold effect—in addition to reducing the risk of stroke, it will also improve your cardiovascular fitness," Dr. Conrad notes. A study published on stroke research showed that moderate regular exercise reduced the chance of stroke by 20 percent, and highly active individuals had a 27 percent less chance of a stroke.
Dr. Segal warns that the nicotine and carbon monoxide intake associated with smoking can damage the cardiovascular system. It also accelerates clot formation, as it thickens the blood and plaque buildup in the arteries. If you are a smoker, take steps to kick the habit.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure contributes to damage of blood vessel walls, which promotes plaque formation, warns Dr. Bernheimer. It is also a major risk factor for the type of stroke caused by bleeding into the brain, as it can cause small blood vessels to rupture.
"Good blood pressure control can cut your stroke risk in half, and it is by far the most important modifiable risk factor," he says.
Some people successfully achieve healthy blood pressure levels through low-sodium diets, exercise and weight loss—but if these approaches don’t work, medication may be required.
"If you find yourself sitting down for more than eight hours every day (not including sleeping hours), then most likely you are not getting enough movement," says Dr. Segal. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of stroke, high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease.
To counteract this risk, try to be active for 30 minutes per day (which exercises your heart) or 150 minutes per week. "Even a short walk would do," Dr. Segal says. "Just break your cycle of sitting down for hours at a time."
High Cholesterol Levels
High levels of cholesterol can cause fatty plaques to build up and create blockages in the blood vessels, which can then cause a stroke, notes Dr. Segal. The first step to taking control of your cholesterol is knowing what your numbers are, he says.
"If you do have high cholesterol, then eat more heart-healthy foods, and minimize your consumption of food that is high in saturated fat and trans-fat," he suggests. "Also cut down on red meat and dairy, and eat more fruits and vegetables."
As Dr. Conrad points out, studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can be helpful for stroke prevention due to its focus on vegetables and healthy oils. If dietary changes aren’t effective, medications may be needed.
Dr. Conrad warns that uncontrolled diabetes can damage tiny blood vessels, leading to a higher risk of a stroke. He recommends maintaining proper blood sugar levels and checking them on a regular basis. It’s also best to avoid simple sugars like soda and desserts, which can cause high blood sugar spikes.
Dr. Bernheimer adds that weight loss can also improve diabetes control (particular with Type 2 diabetes), and that it is very important for people with diabetes to watch their carbohydrate and fat intake.
Regardless of your individual risk factors, the experts agree that the best strategy for reducing stroke risk is a combination of proper nutrition and regular exercise. "There are factors that cannot be controlled, including age and genetics, but maintaining a proper weight and regular cardiovascular activity can be your best defense in stroke prevention," says Dr. Conrad.