May is National High Blood Pressure Education Month and Stroke Awareness Month, so it’s a reminder to keep tabs on your blood pressure to help reduce your risk of stroke — the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.
Unfortunately, 1 in 3 U.S. adults—an estimated 67 million of us—have high blood pressure, also called hypertension. This “silent killer” can damage the heart, brain and kidneys without a single symptom. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can increase your stroke risk by four to six times. Over time, hypertension leads to atherosclerosis, a disease where plaque builds up in your arteries and hardens them. This can lead to blockage of small blood vessels in the brain. High blood pressure can also weaken the blood vessels in the brain, causing them to balloon and burst.
The risk of stroke is directly related to how high your blood pressure is. A stroke occurs when an artery to the brain either becomes blocked or ruptures, and it often results in permanent disabilities or even death. Though risk factors such as gender, race or family history can’t be avoided, here are some changes you can incorporate into your daily lifestyle which can greatly improve your chances of preventing a stroke.
1. Exercise regularly.
Physical activity has proven helpful in stroke prevention, which is due in part to its positive impact on your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, diabetes risk, and overall health benefits. “Exercise is good for the heart and good for the brain,” says Dr. Natalia S. Rost, MD, MPH, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and associate director of Acute Stroke Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. She recommends getting at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise daily, such as walking at a steady pace for the full half hour. “If you can talk on a cell phone but still walk briskly, that is the moderate pace,” Dr. Rost explains.
2. Cut back on salt.
The next time you reach for the salt shaker, keep in mind that managing your sodium intake can also help protect you from stroke. Research shows that an excess amount of sodium in your diet can cause elevated blood pressure, a leading risk factor that accounts for more than 50 percent of strokes worldwide. “All these things that increase the risk of stroke – such as high blood pressure – are driven by what we do to ourselves, including what we put into our bodies,” Dr. Rost says. She recommends that people follow a healthy, low-sodium diet such as the DASH eating plan that was specifically developed by the National Institutes of Health to stop hypertension and decrease the risk of cardiac disease and stroke.
3. Avoid trans fats.
In addition to skimping on salt, cutting trans-fatty acids out of your diet can also help reduce your stroke risk. Found in everything from fried foods to store-bought cake mixes, trans fats have been shown to increase LDL levels (or bad cholesterol) that has been linked to strokes. A recent study also shows a correlation between a higher intake of trans fats and a higher incidence of ischemic strokes in postmenopausal women, which are caused by blocked arteries to the brain. “Avoid foods that are laden in trans fats, especially processed foods like margarine,” suggests Dr. Rani Whitfield, a family practitioner and national volunteer spokesperson for the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. For help figuring out which packaged foods contain trans fats, check out this helpful fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
4. Choose healthy foods.
Not surprisingly, eating a nutritious diet also reduces your chances of having a stroke. Not only can it help control high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and diabetes, but it can also keep your weight in check—something that plays a pivotal role in stroke prevention. A recent study shows that females with a high body mass index are twice as likely as women of normal weight to have a stroke within four to five years after giving birth. As Dr. Rost stresses, the key to healthy eating is to follow a well-balanced diet that is good for both your heart and brain. “There are no tricks, such as one single thing you can eat that will miraculously protect you, but a healthy diet should include green vegetables, table from the American Heart Association.
5. Stay away from cigarettes.
Before you light up, consider that smoking nearly doubles your risk of an ischemic stroke. This decidedly unhealthy habit can lead to hardening of the arteries and an increased risk of blood clots, which can both bring on a stroke. There’s no time like the present to kick your cigarette addiction, as research shows that the excess risks brought on by smoking disappear for women within two to four years after quitting. “Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in our country,” Dr. Whitfield notes. Need help quitting? Check out this useful guide from the National Institutes of Health.
6. Limit alcohol consumption.
When grabbing drinks with friends, keep in mind that moderation is key and can even have the added benefit of lowering stroke risk. However, consuming more than two glasses of alcohol per day actually raises your level of risk. “If you don’t drink, you shouldn’t start,” suggests Dr. Rost. “But if you already are, it is one standard drink a day maximum.” You should follow the guidelines of no more than a 3–4 ounce glass of wine, one ounce of hard liquor, or a regular serving of beer daily. “There is a propensity for hemorrhagic strokes (caused by blood vessel ruptures) in people who overuse alcohol,” she warns.
7. Get regular checkups.
In addition to following a healthy lifestyle, you should also have an annual physical to discuss any medical issues with your doctor. “Three things that we can monitor with the patient are blood sugar, blood cholesterol, and blood pressure,” Dr. Whitfield explains. “If you have high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes, you should take the medication that is prescribed, see your physician as needed, and try to keep those conditions regulated as best as possible,” he says. There are also other medical conditions that increase your risk of stroke, such as atrial fibrillation, which can be controlled with the help of your doctor. “Atrial fibrillation is a very dangerous condition, as it may lead to a five-time increase in the risk of stroke, so it obviously needs to be treated and addressed early,” Dr. Rost notes.
Strokes are serious business, but you can do a lot to control your risk by integrating the right lifestyle changes. “Women suffer from strokes on a large scale in the United States and worldwide, so it is worth putting every effort into preventing them,” Dr. Rost says. Up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable, so no matter what your age it’s best to start protecting yourself sooner rather than later.
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Erin Cassin is a lifestyle and wellness writer. In addition to her work for KnowMore.tv, she has also contributed to Lifetime Digital, the Los Angeles Times and Popular Science.