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No doubt you know someone who has suffered a stroke, whether mild or more severe. If you’ve asked yourself, “Can I prevent this happening to me?” the good news is that you can do a lot to reduce your stroke risk. 

The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from stroke is to know your risks and do what you can do to reduce them.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the U.S., says the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Stroke can strike at any time and nearly any age. It can be devastating if not treated quickly. With increased stroke knowledge , you can take steps to prevent a stroke.

Controllable and Uncontrollable Risk Factors

To best understand your risks for stroke, talk with your doctor. While you cannot prevent some risk factors like age, gender and ethnicity, many medical and lifestyle stroke risks can be managed and controlled.

Medical risks include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Atrial fibrillation
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes and circulation problems
  • Lifestyle risk factors are:
  • Eating habits
  • Physical activity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

Once you know of any conditions or lifestyle factors that may put you at risk for stroke, you can work with your doctor to create a plan to get healthier.

Managing Medical Risks for Stroke

A stroke occurs when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain or when a leaking or burst blood vessel causes bleeding into the brain. 

By getting existing medical conditions under control, you can greatly reduce your stroke risk.

High blood pressure can double or quadruple your stroke risk if left untreated, says Harvard Health Publications. A blood pressure of 120/80 or less is an appropriate target. To achieve a healthy blood pressure, try these tips:

  • Reduce your daily salt intake to 1,500 milligrams or less 
  • Avoid high cholesterol foods like hamburgers, cheese and ice cream
  • Eat a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains
  • Get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day
  • Take blood pressure medicines if needed

Atrial fibrillation is tied to a fivefold increase risk of stroke, say the American Stroke Association. Afib is a form of irregular heartbeat that can cause blood clots to form in the heart. Symptoms include heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Treatments can help, such as taking blood thinners, including high-dose aspirin, warfarin or other blood-thinning medications. Your doctor can help find the right care plan for you. 

Diabetes and high blood sugar can damage blood vessels, making it more likely for clots to form. By keeping your blood sugar under control, you can decrease stroke risk from diabetes. Here’s how:

  • Monitor your blood sugar as your doctor directs
  • Keep your blood sugar in the recommended range with:
    • Diet
    • Exercise 
    • Medicines

High cholesterol can contribute to high blood pressure. High cholesterol can cause a sticky substance to build up inside your arteries. These plaques can break off and travel to different parts of the body, including the brain, blocking blood flow and causing a stroke. You can combat high cholesterol in a few ways, including:

  • Eating a diet that:
    • Is low in fat 
    • Is low in salt
    • Is high in fiber
    • Includes low-cholesterol foods
  • Taking medicines to reduce your cholesterol
  • Exercising

Change Your Lifestyle, Ward Off Stroke

If you eat an unhealthy diet, don’t exercise, and smoke and drink often, you’re increasing your stroke risk. The good news is that you can easily make changes that will improve your overall health.

Neurologist Elizabeth Marriott, MD, of the Clinical Neuroscience Institute talks about the importance of a healthy lifestyle to prevent stroke. Click play to watch the video or read the transcript.

 

A healthy diet will help you maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight or obese, making changes to your eating habits can help you lose pounds. Even dropping 10 pounds can reduce your stroke risk. 

Follow an eating plan that is low in fat, salt and cholesterol and includes plenty of:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains and fiber
  • Lean meats
  • Fish

Know your body mass index and try to maintain a BMI that is 25 or less. If you need to lose weight, try to:

  • Eat between 1,500 and 2,000 calories a day
  • Increase your daily exercise

Exercise contributes to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and losing weight, and it also helps control your stroke risks by managing diabetes and reducing stress

To get the most benefits from exercise, try to spend at least 30 minutes, five days a week doing an activity that increases your heart rate. Examples include:

  • Walking around your neighborhood
  • Starting or joining a fitness group with friends
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • If you need to, breaking up your daily activity into smaller 10-minute or 15-minute sessions.

Limit alcohol intake. While one drink a day may lower your stroke risk, drinking too much can increase your chances of having a stroke by raising your blood pressure. Make it your goal to drink in moderation.

  • Have one glass of alcohol a day
  • Red wine is recommended as it contains resveratrol, thought to protect the heart and brain
  • Watch portion sizes. Standard sizes are:
    • 5 ounces of wine
    • 12 ounces of beer
    • 1.5 ounces of hard liquor
     

Smoking thickens the blood and can increase clot formation. If you quit smoking, you’ll significantly reduce your stroke risk. Talk with your doctor about the best way for you to quit smoking. Options include:

  • Counseling
  • Medicine
  • Nicotine pills or patches

Taking care of your body with a healthy diet, physical activity, living smoke free and reducing stress also strengthens your brain. A healthy brain is another great way to prevent stroke.

Know the Signs for Stroke

One American dies from a stroke every four minutes. That's why it’s important that you recognize the symptoms and signs of stroke and get treatment right away.

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Time matters when it comes to stroke treatment. During a stroke, brain cells die from lack of oxygen and brain damage can result.

Use the F.A.S.T. acronym to remember the three main stroke signs and what to do:

  • Face: Is one side of the face drooping?
  • Arms: When both arms are raised, is one drifting down?
  • Speech: Is speech slurred or strange?
  • Time: Call 911 and get medical help immediately

Other signs of stroke include:

  • Weakness on one side of the body
  • Numbness of the face
  • Unusual or severe headache
  • Vision loss
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Unsteady walk

Even if you or a loved one shows only one sign of stroke, listen to your body and call 911 right away.