Every year, about 795,000 people in the United States experience a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, it is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and a major cause of serious disability for adults. When a stroke occurs, part of your brain can’t get oxygen, so strokes can cause long-term health consequences such as problems with muscles, vision, speech, balance or mental function.
While you can’t eliminate your odds of having a stroke, you can lower them. Mohamed Teleb, MD, is an endovascular neurologist and neurocritical care physician with Banner Brain & Spine. “When it comes to your stroke risk, lifestyle plays a larger role than genetics,” he said. He shares some of the steps you can take to improve your odds of avoiding a stroke.
1. If you smoke, try to stop. Smoking damages your blood vessels, putting you at risk for stroke and cardiovascular problems. Smoking is especially dangerous if you take birth control pills.
2. Control your blood pressure and your cholesterol levels. Take medication for these conditions if you need to. High blood pressure and high cholesterol levels aren’t just bad for your heart—they can be harmful to your brain, as well.
3. Know your family history of stroke and heart disease and your personal risk factors. You’re at increased stroke risk if you:
- Have a family member who had a stroke
- Have had a heart attack, stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) yourself
- Are female
- Are age 65 or older
While you can’t change these risk factors, you can talk to your doctor about managing those that are within your control.
4. Maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol levels and increase your risk of diabetes. Those can all increase your risk of stroke.
5. Get some exercise every day. While exercise won’t necessarily reduce your risk of stroke, if you do have a stroke, being strong and fit can help keep symptoms less severe and help you recover more quickly. Dr. Teleb recommends 30 minutes of walking or some type of exercise daily.
6. Choose a healthy diet. Avoid foods high in cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium and trans fats. They can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol, increasing your risk for stroke. Dr. Teleb recommends a healthy diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods and limits processed food. He said there’s no evidence that low-carb diets or intermittent fasting reduce your risk for stroke.
7. Reduce your stress levels. The mind-body connection is powerful, and when you are in fight-or-flight mode, it takes a toll on your body. Tune into how you are feeling, and try exercise, meditation, yoga or connecting with other people to help manage your stress levels.
8. Get enough sleep. Adequate sleep can reduce your stroke risk. If you have trouble sleeping and suspect you might have sleep apnea, get screened. Sleep apnea is linked to metabolic syndrome and high blood pressure, both of which are linked with stroke.
9. Watch for signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib). With AFib, your heart’s chambers don’t beat in sync. You might not notice symptoms, or you might have a rapid heart rate. AFib increases your risk of stroke. Dr. Teleb expects that wearable fitness devices will help people spot earlier signs of AFib in the future.
10. If you have diabetes, keep it well controlled. Fluctuations in your blood sugar levels make it more likely you could develop a stroke.
11. Avoid illicit drugs and take steps to reduce your risk of trauma. In general, your risk of stroke increases as you get older. But Dr. Teleb said drug use is the top cause of stroke in young adults. Trauma can also cause stroke in young people, so wear your seatbelt and drive at a safe speed, whatever your age.
12. See your doctor at least once a year. Your doctor will check your blood pressure and your risk of diabetes. If you’re at high risk of stroke, your doctor may recommend a carotid artery screening. This test uses ultrasound to see if the arteries in your neck are narrowed or blocked by plaque. This blockage could reduce blood flow to your brain; or plaque or blood clots could break off and get lodged in your brain, triggering a stroke.
The bottom line
Stroke is a dangerous health condition that can lead to long-term physical and mental health problems. By making healthy lifestyle choices and managing your existing health conditions, you can reduce your risk. To learn more about your personal risk for stroke, check out the free Stroke Risk Profiler. If you would like to connect with a health care provider who can help you reduce your risk of stroke, reach out to Banner Health.