A stroke is something you never expect to happen to you. You continue your bad habits because nobody’s perfect, right? Except that about 9,000 New Zealanders every year have a stroke, and most of them probably thought it wouldn’t happen to them either. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce your risk of it happening to you.
Certain physical factors and lifestyle habits increase your risk of stroke. While you can’t change some stroke risk factors, such as age and genetics, you can do something about lifestyle factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity. Here are six top tips to help you reduce 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. A person with high blood pressure is up to 7 times more likely to have a stroke than someone with normal or low blood pressure.
High blood pressure damages blood vessels throughout your body, making them more susceptible to developing clots.
Monitoring blood pressure and, if it is elevated, treating it is probably the biggest difference you can make to your vascular (arteries and veins) health.
Not smoking, exercising, eating well, avoiding bad fats and reducing salt intake all help to reduce your blood pressure.
2. Ditch the smokes
Cigarette smoking is a major stroke contributor. Smokers two to four times more likely to have a stroke than non-smokers. Nicotine and carbon monoxide damage your cardiovascular system. Smoking speeds up clot formation by thickening your blood and increasing plaque build-up in your arteries.
Quitting smoking is one of the most powerful lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your stroke risk significantly. Just five years after you stop smoking, your risk of stroke will be the same as that of a non-smoker. To stop smoking is hard work, but help is available. Find out more about quitting smoking.
3. Revamp your eating habits
A healthy diet addresses multiple stroke risk factors, including being overweight and having high cholesterol and diabetes. High blood cholesterol can contribute to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) which can lead to stroke. “Cholesterol tends to adhere to the arteries, and blood tends to stick to those spots, increasing the risk of clotting,” Dr Morgenstern, director of the University of Michigan Stroke Programme says.
- Educate yourself on what food labels are really saying and make it a habit to read them.
- Avoid foods that are 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? It’s best to eat mostly:
- an array of colours from fruit and vegetables to get a range of nutrients
- fish 2 or 3 times a week for lean protein
- wholegrain complex carbohydrates for sustained energy
- nuts, seeds and olive oil for good fats.
These changes provide you with antioxidants that protect your heart health and will also boost the fibre in your diet. Boosting the fibre can help you feel fuller and more satisfied. As an added bonus, certain types of fibre can also help lower your cholesterol.
Try meat-free Mondays. Eating a plant-based diet makes it easier to limit cholesterol and unhealthy fats. Support your weight loss efforts by eating breakfast every day, keeping meal portions small and drinking plenty of water. Find out more about healthy eating basics.
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 also decreases with exercise. Even 20–30 minutes of walking every day helps. Find out more about the benefits of being active.
If you have had a stroke, discuss exercise programmes with your doctor or physical therapist.
5. Lose the booze
Drinking more than two small alcoholic drinks a day can increase stroke risk by up to 3 times. A drinking binge can increase stroke risk as much as 5 times, regardless of age. Research from the University of Cincinnati shows that having more than 2 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 your brain. It tends to particularly affect premenopausal women.
Reconsider that regular alcoholic drink, because every tipple affects your health. Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink is an important way to reduce stroke risk. Find out more about standard drink size and cutting back on alcohol.
6. Know how to identify a stroke – FAST
Identifying stroke symptoms can mean the difference between recovery and lifelong disability. Make sure you remember FAST:
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.
Other stroke identifiers include:
- weakness on one side of your body
- numbness of your face
- numbness and tingling in other parts of your body
- unusual and severe headache
- vision loss
- unsteady walk.
A stroke affects everyone in the family, not just the person who has the stroke. So, now’s a good time to make a plan as a family to eat healthily, get more exercise and clear the air of cigarette smoke. By working together, you'll find it easier to stick with new habits. Find out more about stroke.