There are many steps you can take now to reduce your risk of stroke. This is doubly true for people with cardiovascular disease. Because stroke is a form of cardiovascular disease, it makes sense that keeping your heart and blood vessels as healthy as possible will reduce your risk of stroke. If you have coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, or high blood levels of cholesterol, it is vital to get regular medical checkups. All of these conditions, which are also risk factors for stroke, can be controlled by proper medical treatment and appropriate changes in diet and exercise regime.
This section discusses stroke prevention and:
Treating cardiovascular conditions also reduces the risk of stroke:
- Controlling blood pressure: High blood pressure (hypertension) is the most important single risk factor for stroke. Even mild hypertension increases risk. In general, an ideal blood pressure is 120/80 or below. Elevated blood pressure promotes atherosclerosis and puts abnormal pressure on blood vessel walls, which can cause a rupture at a weak spot. Hypertension is often called the "silent killer" because there may be no obvious symptoms. So it is important to check your blood pressure regularly. Controlling blood pressure, whether by a low-sodium diet, weight control, regular exercise, stress management, or medication, will reduce your risk of stroke. Medication to control hypertension is effective only if taken on a regular basis, so it is important to follow your doctor's instructions.
- Treating heart disease: A variety of heart conditions, including irregular heart rhythms (atrial fibrillation), heart attacks, and heart valve disorders, can cause stroke. Treatment of these disorders will reduce stroke risk.
Treatment of hypertension in older adults is important. However, in the elderly an abrupt fall in blood pressure may actually cause a stroke. As a result, older individuals who need to reduce their blood pressure may need to start with small doses of medication so that blood pressure is reduced gradually.
The following changes in lifestyle will help lower your risk of stroke:
- Stop smoking: Studies confirm that smokers have a higher risk of stroke, regardless of other factors such as age, high blood pressure, or heart disease. The risk declines dramatically within a few years of giving up tobacco.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight is linked to high blood pressure, which puts added strain on the heart and blood vessels. Obesity also predisposes a person to heart disease and diabetes, both of which increase one's risk of stroke.
- Exercise regularly: The percentage of fat in our bodies tends to increase with age. Regular exercise helps keep this increase to a minimum. There appears to be an inverse relationship between exercise and atherosclerosis—i.e., more exercise is linked to lower levels of atherosclerosis. If you have not exercised regularly and would like to start an exercise program, or if you have medical problems or family history of serious disease, consult your physician before beginning an exercise program. Experts recommend at least 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week in order to achieve and maintain an improved level of fitness.
- Reduce stress: Because stress may increase blood pressure, it is indirectly linked to stroke risk. A one-time stressful event rarely causes a stroke, but long-term unresolved stress can contribute to high blood pressure. Stress management, including relaxation techniques, biofeedback, exercise, and counseling, can—along with medication—reduce blood pressure, thus lowering the risk of stroke.
This section also discusses diet and stroke prevention.
Eating foods that are high in fat, cholesterol, and salt can increase your risk of stroke. The following recommendations are among the most important for stroke prevention. In addition, ask members of your healthcare team for help in identifying additional foods to avoid and appropriate substitutes for them.
- Avoid excess fat: Eating a lot of fat, particularly saturated fat and cholesterol, may contribute to atherosclerosis, which is associated with stroke. Dietary fat and cholesterol may be reduced by limiting the fat or oil added in cooking, trimming fat and skin from meats and poultry, using low-fat or nonfat dairy products, broiling and baking foods rather than frying them, and limiting the number of eggs eaten to no more than three a week.
- Avoid excess sodium: Excess sodium in the diet is linked to hypertension. Table salt is a major source of dietary sodium. There is also "hidden" salt in most processed foods and canned foods, especially those with listed ingredients that include sodium phosphate, monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrate, and similar compounds. Try to eat fresh food whenever possible.
- Limit alcohol intake: Individuals who have more than two alcoholic beverages a day are at an increased risk of stroke. For heavy drinkers, the risk of stroke is even greater.
Other controllable factors also influence the risk of stroke:
- Diabetes: The association between diabetes and increased stroke risk seems to be related to the circulatory problems caused by the disease. Good control of diabetes appears to reduce the cardiovascular complications of the disease.
- Oral contraceptives: Use of oral contraceptives, especially those with a high dose of estrogen, appears to increase the risk of blood clots—including clots that cause stroke—especially in women over age 30. The risk is even higher in women who smoke. If you have stroke risk factors and are using oral contraceptives, you might want to consult your physician regarding alternative methods of birth control.
- Post-menopausal estrogen use: Recent studies have associated post-menopausal estrogen replacement therapy with a small increase in the risk of stroke.
Last reviewed on 09/15/2005
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