A stroke is something we never expect to happen to us. We continue our naughty habits and wild weekends because nobody’s perfect, right? Except that there are about 7,000 new strokes annually in New Zealand and they’re difficult to overlook when it affects you or a loved one.
Certain physical factors and lifestyle habits increase your risk of stroke. While we can’t alter some stroke risk factors such as age and genetics, we can do something about factors such as high blood pressure, bad cholesterol levels and obesity.
Dr Natalia Rost, Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and Associate Director of the Acute Stroke Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, says “If you know that a particular risk factor is sabotaging your health and predisposing you to a higher risk of stroke, you can take steps to alleviate the effects of that risk.”
Here are six top tips for reducing your risk of stroke.
1. Calm the farm!
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the biggest risk factor for stroke in both men and women. Women over 55 are significantly more likely than men to develop hypertension, which may be attributed to decreased oestrogen levels.
“High blood pressure damages blood vessels throughout the body, making them more susceptible to developing clots,” says Dr Lewis Morgenstern, director of the University of Michigan Stroke Programme.
Dr Rost says monitoring blood pressure and, if it is elevated, treating it, is probably the biggest difference people can make to their vascular health.
Not smoking, exercising, eating well, avoiding bad fats, and reducing salt intake all contribute to reducing blood pressure.
2. Ditch the smokes
Cigarette smoking is also a major stroke contributor. Smoking accelerates clot formation; it thickens your blood and increases plaque build-up in your arteries. Nicotine and carbon monoxide damage the cardiovascular system.
“Smoking cessation is one of the most powerful lifestyle changes that will help you reduce your stroke risk significantly,” Dr Rost says.
Just five years after you stop smoking, your risk of stroke will be the same as that of a nonsmoker.
Research shows that former smokers need an average of six attempts before they stop smoking for good. So the more you try, the better your chance of succeeding.
Counselling and Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) can double your chance of success. Make a plan to avoid people who smoke; secondhand smoke weakens your resolve and is a risk factor for stroke.
3. Revamp your eating habits
A healthy diet addresses multiple stroke risk factors, including being overweight, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Try to:
- Educate yourself on what food labels are really saying and make it a habit to read them.
- Avoid foods high in sugar, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat.
- Consider nutritious food in terms of the benefits you receive, rather than viewing a healthy diet as ‘restrictive’.
So what should you eat? An array of colours from fruit and vegetables to get a range of nutrients; fish two or three times a week for lean protein; wholegrain complex carbohydrates for sustained energy; and nuts, seeds, and olive or coconut oils for good fats.
Julia Renee Zumpano, registered dietitian in preventive cardiology and rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, says “these changes will provide you cardio-protective antioxidants and boost the fiber in your diet. Boosting the fiber can help you feel fuller and more satisfied. As an added bonus, certain types of fiber can also help lower your cholesterol.”
Try meat-free Mondays. Eating a plant-based diet makes it easier to limit cholesterol and unhealthy fats.
“Cholesterol tends to adhere to the arteries, and blood tends to stick to those spots, increasing the risk of clotting,” Dr Morgenstern says.
Support your weight loss efforts by eating breakfast every day, keeping meal portions small, and drinking plenty of water.
4. Get a move on
In a study of more than 47,000 men and women in Finland, moderate and high levels of physical activity were associated with lower stroke risk.
Exercise helps reduce blood pressure by making your heart stronger; the stronger your heart, the less effort it takes to pump blood around your body.
Your chance of developing diabetes decreases with exercise; even 20–30 minutes’ walking every day helps.
If you’re a stroke survivor, discuss exercise programmes with your doctor or physical therapist.
5. Replace the plonk
In the medical world, two alcoholic drinks a day is considered heavy drinking and increases the risk of stroke by 69% in people who haven't had a stroke. Excessive drink can also increase your blood pressure.
Research from the University of Cincinnati shows that having more than two drinks a day is associated with subarachnoid hemorrhage, a particularly deadly type of stroke caused by the rupture of a blood vessel on the surface of the brain; it tends to affect premenopausal women.
Reconsider that regular indulgence because every tipple affects your health. If you must, make red wine your first choice, because it contains resveratrol, which is thought to protect the heart and brain.
6. Know how to identify a stroke – FAST
Identifying stroke symptoms can mean the difference between recovery and lifelong disability.
F – Does one side of your face droop when you smile?
A – When you lift both arms, does one arm drift back down?
S – Is your speech slurred, or does it sound odd?
T – If you see any of these signs in yourself or someone else, telephone 111 right away.
“My recommendation is, don’t wait if you have any unusual symptoms,” Dr Rost advises. “If something is off, get professional help right away.”
Other stroke identifiers include:
- weakness on one side of the body
- numbness of the face
- unusual and severe headache
- vision loss
- numbness and tingling
- unsteady walk.
"A stroke affects everyone in the family, not just the person who had the stroke," Dr Goldstein says. "Make a plan as a family to eat healthier, get more exercise, and clear the air of cigarette smoke. By working together, you'll find it easier to stick with new habits."