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Stroke: What You Need to Know to Reduce Your Risk

By Kimberly Levesque, PT, DPT, AIT

Did you know that stroke is the #5 cause of death, and a leading cause of disability, in the United States? If you’re reading this, I am assuming you already have a baseline understanding of what a stroke is and what it isn’t. Just in case, check out the American Stroke Association to learn about the types of stroke, the effects of stroke, and much, much more.  

Now let’s talk about how we can reduce our risk of stroke.

The three largest risk factors for developing a stroke likely won’t surprise you:

  1. What you eat;
  2. Whether you exercise regularly; and
  3. If you smoke.

The good news is all three of these are controllable risk factors. Here are three simple steps you can take to combat the three largest risk factors.

  1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, foods low in saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol, and salt, and high in fiber (up to 4.9 gm). This recent blog post – Diet for Heart Health – is a great resource too!
  2. Exercise regularly. Check out Exercise for Heart Health, and remember, walking counts!
  3. Quit smoking. Easier said than done, I know, but even for a long-term smoker, quitting will reduce your risk of stroke almost immediately. Read more here.

And don’t forget, an annual physical exam and controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol levels is an essential part of managing your overall health.

Of course, there are risk factors that are uncontrollable too. These include:

  • Age: as we age, our bodies have a harder time protecting themselves.
  • Gender: certain diseases are more common among genders (men = heart disease).
  • Ethnicity: African Americans are more likely to develop hypertension, Mexican Americans have a higher risk of diabetes, Asians have a lower risk for heart disease, and people of European descent have a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Heredity: unfortunately, you can also inherit chances of developing certain diseases just like you inherit your hair or eye color.
  • Previous cardiovascular event: including heart attack, stroke, and/or history of pre-eclampsia or eclampsia

Diabetic? It’s important to appropriately manage your diabetes to avoid little-seen changes in the brain blood vessels, which can also be a stroke. Check out Nutrition for Diabetes Management and Exercise for Diabetes Management for some helpful tips.

Obviously, there is nothing we can do about the uncontrollable risk factors. That’s why it’s so important to manage what we can control. In addition to the tips above to tackle the three largest risk factors and keep your diabetes in check, you can decrease your risk even further by getting a handle on these controllable risk factors too:

  1. Blood Pressure: talk to your doctor about the appropriate blood pressure for you; generally, maintaining a blood pressure reading of less than 120/80 is recommended.
    1. Weight: if you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 lbs. can have a significant impact on your risk of stroke. Work with your doctor to determine a healthy body mass index (BMI) for you.
    2. Alcohol Consumption: drink in moderation, no more than one glass of alcohol per day and consider red wine as your first choice (some studies suggest red wine might help prevent heart disease and stroke).

Now to put a plan into action! Here’s how:

  • Determine your personal goals (i.e., quit smoking, lose 10 lbs., etc.)
  • Assess your current abilities and challenges
  • Discuss with your medical provider and/or support system
  • Find something you enjoy
  • Determine what you need to be successful (i.e., nicotine aids, gym membership, etc.)
  • Start small

Don’t forget to assess and reassess often! Your body will thank you.