Prevention is always the best medicine. Fortunately, many chronic health problems that people deal with as they age are lifestyle related. No doubt, there is a genetic component to some health problems, but research shows lifestyle and environmental exposure can change the expression of some genes, including bad ones. In other words, if you do the right things from a lifestyle standpoint, the “bad” genes may not be expressed, and you may avoid the genetic destiny as written in your DNA. Just as cardiovascular risk is strongly related to lifestyle, so is the risk of developing a stroke.
Strokes can be deadly, but even if you survive one, you may be left with permanent disabilities. A stroke interferes with the blood flow to portions of the brain, and those areas become damaged or non-functional. So, stroke victims are often left with permanent disabilities, such as problems speaking, difficulty moving one side of the body, cognitive problems, difficulty walking or lifestyle changing health problems. So, it’s best to avoid developing one!
Types of Stroke
There are actually two types of stroke: ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke. Eighty percent of strokes are of the ischemic kind. These strokes occur when a blood clot forms and blocks blood flow to part of the brain. In contrast, hemorrhagic strokes happen when a blood vessel in the brain leaks or bleeds. Healthy lifestyle habits can lower the risk of both types of stroke, although the evidence is strongest for ischemic strokes.
How do we know lifestyle is important for stroke risk? A study published in the journal Circulation identified five lifestyle factors that greatly reduce the risk of stroke. In fact, the research suggests that heeding five lifestyle factors can prevent 80% of strokes. The information was gleaned from looking at data from 43,685 men and 71, 243 women from two larger studies. What are these factors?
Kicking the Smoking Habit or Never Starting
Smoking increases the risk of both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, and the more a person smokes each day, the higher the risk. According to a study that looked at almost 11,000 Swedish smokers, 39% of strokes are related to smoking. Here’s the good news if you’re a smoker. Quitting helps. Research shows the elevated risk of stroke due to smoking returns to baseline within two to four years of kicking the habit. Why is smoking so harmful? It damages the inner walls of blood vessels and changes how they function. This causes a rise in blood pressure but also increases the risk of blood clots.
Alcohol is controversial, as some studies show a link between drinking moderate quantities of alcohol and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, although data is inconsistent and it’s not clear whether the link is causal. This study would suggest that limiting alcohol to no more than moderate consumption is a lifestyle habit that can lower the risk of cardiovascular problems, including stroke. However, more recent research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption confers no protection against stroke, so it’s best to consume little or no alcohol. If you must drink, limit the amount to 1-2 drinks daily.
Adopting a Healthy Diet
As you might expect, diet plays a role in stroke risk. Although a healthy diet is a vague term, the study suggests that adopting a diet that emphasizes whole foods, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy, lower in saturated fat, and fish and poultry, as opposed to red meat, meets the standard for a healthy diet. These foods are naturally low in sugar too. In other words, skip the processed and packaged stuff and foods with added sugar and stick to the perimeter of the supermarket. This is similar to a classic Mediterranean diet, an eating style correlated with a lower risk of a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Also, a Mediterranean diet is brain healthy in another way. Some studies suggest that it may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Stay a Healthy Weight
Keeping your body weight in a healthy range also offers protection against stroke, according to the results of the study. Based on the research, we should aim for a BMI of between 18.5 and 25 kg/m2 during midlife, as this is linked with the lowest risk of stroke. One shortfall is that BMI doesn’t distinguish between body fat and lean tissue. It also doesn’t take into account waist size, another marker for future health problems. Studies show that waist size should be no larger than half of a person’s height. A larger waist size is linked with a greater risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In fact, some experts believe waist size is a better indicator of health risk than BMI or body weight. So, watch your weight and your waist size!
Stay Physically Active
You knew exercise would be on the list, didn’t you? In the study, those who engaged in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily were at a lower risk of developing a stroke. Aerobic exercise improves how blood vessels function and lowers blood pressure. We know that high blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke. Since high blood pressure is also a risk factor for stroke, make sure you’re monitoring yours. Also, it is important to monitor blood sugar and lipid levels too.
The Bottom Line
The thought of having a stroke is a scary one, but as this study shows, lifestyle makes a difference! You can prevent the vast majority of strokes by making simple lifestyle changes. But it’s also important to know your family history, so you can monitor your health proactively. For example, if you have a family history of hypertension, abnormal lipids, or stroke, you’ll need to more aggressively monitor your health and stick even more closely to a heart and blood-vessel friendly lifestyle. It’s nice to know that we have a say in our health future, and it begins with the basics–a healthy body weight, exercise, a healthful diet, and not smoking or overusing alcohol.
· Stroke. 2005;36(2):234. Epub 2004 Dec 23.
· National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Risk for Coronary Heart Disease”
· Medscape.com. “No Protective Effect of Moderate Drinking on Stroke Risk”
· Circulation. 2008 Aug 26;118(9):947-54. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.108.781062. Epub 2008 Aug 12.