Stroke is one of the leading causes of death and disability, but the good news is that you can take charge and reduce your risk for stroke.
Understanding your risk factors is your first line of defense. That’s why medical check-ups are an important protection against stroke.
Some risk factors, such as age or family history, can’t be changed, but there are many things you can do to help lower your risk.
Risk factors for stroke that you can change
Cigarette and tobacco use
If you smoke, your risk of having a heart attack or stroke is double that of a nonsmoker. One of the best things you can do for your body and your health in general is to never start smoking. If you smoke now, quit.
High blood pressure
Know your blood pressure. There is a direct relationship between high blood pressure and the risk of stroke. The following tips can help you manage your blood pressure:
- Keep your regular doctor appointments.
- Take all medications as ordered by your doctor. Never run out — even for one day.
- Never stop taking your medications on your own.
- Have your blood pressure checked regularly.
- Keep your ideal body weight.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Limit your salt.
- Start a regular exercise program after speaking with your health care provider.
- Limit alcohol: no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
- Stop smoking and using other tobacco products.
High blood cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fat found in your bloodstream. It comes from some of the foods that you eat and is also made by your liver. Though we need cholesterol for the healthy functioning of our bodies, too much can lead to problems. Cholesterol can build up in your arteries, speed up hardening of your arteries and lead to blockage.
To understand your cholesterol risk, you’ll need to understand a few terms. LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein. This is sometimes referred to as “bad” cholesterol. An easy way to remember is that the “L” stands for lousy.
HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein. HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol. Unlike other cholesterol levels, the higher your HDL, the better. The HDL helps remove deposits from the inside of your artery walls. Remember the “H” stands for “helpful” or “healthy.”
Triglycerides are fats in the blood that come from food you eat. Triglyceride levels will vary with your diet.
Talk to your doctor about your personal risk for stroke and heart disease, and ask what your cholesterol levels should be.
Diabetes (high blood sugar)
Diabetes and pre-diabetes are major risk factors for stroke and heart disease. If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, know your blood sugar numbers and follow these steps to control your blood sugars:
- Work with your health care provider to find the right combination of diet and exercise for you.
- Ask your health care provider whether a weight-control program is right for you.
- Ask your health care provider whether an exercise program would benefit you.
- Check your blood-sugar levels as instructed by your health care provider.
Obesity increases your chances of developing other medical problems such as stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. Follow these steps to control your weight:
- Ask your health care provider to help you find your ideal weight.
- Ask your health care provider about a weight-loss program.
- Get diet counseling from a registered dietitian.
Carotid artery disease
Carotid artery disease is a condition where the main blood vessels to your brain have a build-up of plaque, which limits blood flow. When the build-up becomes bad, a stroke can happen. Your doctor will talk to you about the best options for you if you have carotid artery disease.
Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm that can increase the chance of a blood clot forming in your heart. This clot can leave the heart and travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Often, people with atrial fibrillation are prescribed blood-thinning medication to reduce the chance of stroke. Speak with your health care provider if you have this condition.
All of us have to deal with some stress in our lives. Stress can cause a number of changes in your body. When you are under stress, your heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugars may be higher. This may be greater strain on your heart and an increased risk of hardening of your arteries. Follow these steps to lower your stress:
- Know what causes your stress.
- Pay attention to how your body acts when you are stressed.
- Learn stress-management and relaxation techniques.
- Get your doctor’s advice about an exercise program to help reduce the effects of stress.
Exercise can control most of your risk factors
Hopefully you have noticed how many times exercise is mentioned in this article. How does it relate to stroke prevention? Regular exercise can lower your risk of many vascular diseases. Exercises such as bicycling, swimming and walking have many benefits such as:
- Raising your “good” cholesterol (HDL).
- Lowering your “bad” cholesterol (LDL).
- Lowering your blood pressure.
- Burning calories, which may help you to lose weight.
- Reducing stress, anxiety and fatigue.
- Raising your stamina and endurance.
You can lower your risk for heart and vascular disease by starting to exercise now, with your doctor’s approval. Follow these steps before you exercise:
- Check with your doctor about starting an exercise program that is right for you.
- Choose exercises that you enjoy. You are more likely to stick with them.
Risk factors you can’t change
The risk of a stroke is greater for people who have a family history of stroke.
As you get older, your arteries begin to harden and can clog your blood vessels, and your risk of stroke and other vascular diseases goes up.
Men have a greater risk of having a stroke than women, but women have higher risk of dying from a stroke.
African-Americans have a greater risk of death and disability from stroke than Caucasians.
Someone who has had a stroke is at higher risk of having another stroke.
Are you ready to take action?
If you haven’t had a regular check-up with your doctor, make an appointment today. If you don’t have a doctor, consider a Christiana Care primary care location that’s convenient for you, and call to make an appointment.
If you need help with other risk factors discussed in this article, consider these services from Christiana Care:
- Take a free, online heart and vascular risk assessment to learn about your personal risks for heart disease and stroke.
- Get help to quit smoking.
- Consider a weight-management program.
- Get help starting an exercise program.
- Ask your doctor to recommend help with stress management, or reach out to our Behavioral Health program for a referral.
- If you have diabetes, get help to manage it appropriately.