4 Ways to Lower Your Risk for Stroke

Every year, nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke. That's one stroke every 45 seconds. Of these, about 137,000 people die each year making it the third leading cause of death in the country--and a major contributor to adult disability.

4 Ways to Lower Your Risk for Stroke

Strokes do not discriminate based on age, sex or race, though more women have strokes than men. And African Americans are at twice the risk for stroke compared to whites.

However, even with these dark statistics, 80% of strokes are preventable.

We’ll look at four ways to lower your risk for stroke.

What is a Stroke?
We’ll keep this simple: A stroke occurs when oxygen-carrying blood vessels in the brain burst or become blocked. Once the oxygen is cut off, brain cells begin to die, causing permanent damage.

Effects of Strokes
A right-hemisphere stroke affects the left side of the body and often causes paralysis to that side, vision problems, and memory loss.

Left-hemisphere strokes occur on the left side of the brain but affect the right side of the body causing paralysis, speech/language problems, memory loss and possibly creating a slow behavioral style.

Cerebellar strokes “can cause abnormal reflexes of the head and torso, coordination and balance problems, dizziness, nausea and vomiting,” says the National Stroke Association.

Brain stem strokes devastate the body because the brain stem controls breathing rate, blood pressure, swallowing, hearing, speech, and heartbeat.

4 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk

Number One: Avoid Excess Sodium – High blood pressure is a major risk. Eat too much salt and you increase your blood pressure and your risk for stroke. The USDA recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. One teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 mg of salt.

The American Heart Association is more cautious. It recommends 1,500 mg, particularly for those over 51 and those with hypertension.

A recent University of Miami study found that “individuals who consumed more than 4,000 mg of sodium per day had more than twice the risk of stroke compared to those who kept their daily consumption to less than 1,500 mg.”

Beware of packaged snacks, baked goods, frozen entrees, condiments, fried foods and canned soups. Chicken noodle soup has 1,106 mg. Spaghetti sauce (1 cup) has 1,206 mg. 

Read the labels for sodium (per serving) and look for other sources of sodium including monosodium glutamate and sodium nitrate. Look for low sodium products, reduced sodium. Eating fresh, homemade foods will also reduce your sodium intake.

Number Two: Lay Off the Diet Soda – In the same University of Miami study, researchers found that “those who drank diet soda every day had a 61% higher risk of vascular events [strokes] than those who did no soda drinking.”  

The researchers suggested one or two sodas a week is fine. If you have a habit of drinking diet soda daily, replace it with a seltzer, tea or water.

Number Three: Lower Your Fatty Food Intake – This is an oldie but goody and for good reason. The worst fat offender and the one to lower in your life is trans fat. This is primarily a man-made concoction (some trans fat occurs naturally) that companies use in their foods to keep them fresher longer. It’s also a major contributing culprit to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and of course, stroke.

The Women’s Health Initiative, a major study of women over 50 found that eating a lot of trans fat put them at a 44% higher risk for stroke compared to those who ate the least.

The study of over 87,000 women found that “there were 288 strokes in the group of women who consumed the most fat each day (95 grams) versus 249 strokes in the group eating the least fat (25 grams).”

The American Heart Association recommends fat be 25 to 35% of total calories and trans fat to less than 1%. So if you need 2,000 calories a day, your trans fat should be no more than 2 grams.

On food labels, trans fat is listed as “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil. The “good” fats are monounsaturated (olive, peanut, and canola oils) and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and fish.

Foods high in trans fat include margarine, packaged foods, soups, fast food, frozen food, cookies, crackers, baked goods, and breakfast cereal. Basically, most foods that are processed and put on the shelf in the supermarket. Remember, they need a shelf life.

Number Four: Exercise – Feel better. Look better. Live longer. What’s not to like about exercise. On top of all this, you’ll lower your risk for stroke.

One recent Columbia University study “found that moderate-to-heavy exercisers were 40% less likely to have suffered a silent stroke than the non-exercisers.” Silent strokes often go unnoticed and symptoms can include memory loss, mobility problems, and greater risk for future strokes.

Your exercise doesn’t have to involve gym membership or any special gadgets or equipment. The American Stroke Association recommends going “on a brisk walk, take the stairs and do whatever you can to make your life more active. Get at least 30 minutes of activity on most of all days.”

Summary
The great thing about these four ways to lower your stroke risk is that they don’t involve huge lifestyle changes. You can still indulge in the occasional diet soda or basket of fries. Just do it in moderation. Be aware of what you’re putting in your mouth and your body.

Not only will you lower your stroke risk with these steps, but you’ll also lower your risk for other killers like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

For tips on other ways to take care of yourself, read "Aging Well."

Updated: Oct 10, 2011

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