If you intend to be around a good many years for your loved ones, with a sound mind and body, then you should take important measures now to prevent a stroke.
Even more so than many chronic conditions, a stroke can put you out of commission. Stroke victims often lose their jobs, their ability to speak or see, and even their lives. Things don’t have to be that way.
“Individuals who are managing their blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels for diabetes are significantly reducing their risk of having a stroke and basically living normal lives,” says Daniel T. Lackland, Dr.P.H., an epidemiology specialist in Charleston, S.C.
The take-home message? Take your risk factors seriously.
One bonus: Nearly everything you do to prevent a future stroke also will reduce your heart attack risk. Both these life-threatening events are linked to cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death for both males and females in the United States.
How a stroke happens
Most strokes, also known as “brain attacks,” occur because of a blockage in an artery that supplies blood and oxygen to the brain. Another type of stroke is caused by a ruptured artery in the brain, which prevents blood from reaching the brain and also bleeds into the brain. When a portion of the brain goes without oxygen, it becomes damaged, causing the loss of functions controlled by that area.
These stroke symptoms may be temporary or permanent.
Some people also suffer transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. These brain attacks are small and sometimes go unnoticed, yet they can lead to symptoms of impaired mental or physical function.
Stroke risk factors are divided into two categories: those you can control and modify and those you can’t, such as age and family history. Stroke risk increases as you age, with most strokes occurring in people older than 55. But stroke can occur at any age—and you’re at higher risk if you’ve had a previous stroke or TIA.
Plan for prevention
Although you can’t do anything about your age and family history, you can affect many other risk factors. The higher your risk, the more important lifestyle changes and any prescribed medications become.
“It’s never too late to take measures to prevent a stroke,” Dr. Lackland says. To lower your risks, he offers these suggestions:
Don’t smoke. Cigarette smokers have double the stroke risk of nonsmokers.
Have your heart rhythm checked. Many people have irregular heartbeats that are occasional and harmless. But if yours are because of atrial fibrillation (AF), you have a five times higher risk for stroke than people without AF, which increases with age. It tends to encourage the formation of blood clots in the heart, which may travel through the bloodstream and cause a stroke. Effective AF treatments are available—just be sure to work closely with your doctor to find the right treatment for you.
Control your weight. “This is right at the top of the list of lifestyle changes,” Dr. Lackland says. “Being overweight contributes to many other stroke risks, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes.”
Manage your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke. Regular physical activity, weight control, managing stress, and limiting sodium and alcohol intake can help control it. It’s also essential to take any prescribed blood pressure medications according to your doctor’s instructions.
Control diabetes. Diabetes is strongly linked to stroke, so it’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations for weight control, exercise, diet, and medication.
Control your cholesterol levels. Limiting the cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat, in your diet can reduce your risk for stroke. If your doctor has prescribed a cholesterol-lowering medication, take it as recommended.
Do you know what your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels are right now? If you do, you’ve taken the first step toward getting them under control. If you don’t know them, now is the time to be tested.
“The potential for prevention is exciting,” Dr. Lackland says. “In the big picture, we’re living a lot longer than previous generations did. Treating the risk factors for stroke and heart attack probably has a lot to do with our increased lifespan.”