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Minimizing your Risk of Stroke


We’ve talked a lot about heart attacks in this magazine. In this issue, we’re talking about stroke, which is very similar to a heart attack in that it’s the result of a blockage in an artery. The difference, of course, is that stroke occurs in the brain. Most people seem to know how important it is to reduce their risk of heart attack. But for some reason, people are often less informed about the need to lower their risk of stroke. And that’s strange, because stroke affects about 700,000 people in the U.S. each year. Of those, about 150,000 die.

Most strokes—about 85 percent—occur when there’s a blockage in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients, and without those, brain tissue begins to die. In the other 15 percent of strokes, ruptured blood vessels bleed into the brain. In either type of stroke, the damage that results can range from mild to severe, including loss of speech, vision and the ability to use your arms and legs.

What are the risk factors?
There are four factors that greatly increase your risk of stroke:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Heart disease

For anyone who has one or more of these risk factors, there are steps you can take to decrease your chances of having a stroke:

Managing high blood pressure
There’s so much you can do to lower your blood pressure. First of all, be sure to have your pressure checked. High blood pressure usually causes no symptoms, so you don’t know you have it unless you actually have it tested. If your blood pressure is high, you’ll want to talk with your doctor, nurse practitioner or other healthcare provider about what you need to do to control it. This could include:

  • Changing your diet. It’s important to take a good hard look at the food you eat to identify how much fat you’re getting (including saturated fats and trans fats) and how much salt, or sodium, you have in your diet. We only need 30 to 40 milligrams of salt per day, but guidelines say it’s safe to consume about 2,000. The average American diet, on the other hand, contains 5,000 to 6,000 milligrams of salt per day. So—you may think you don’t eat much salt, but unless you’ve taken a close look at your daily intake, chances are good that you may be getting too much sodium in your diet. Be sure to talk with a dietitian to learn how you can limit the salt and bad fats and replace them with healthy alternatives.
  • Nutritional supplements. Getting enough calcium, magnesium, vitamin C and folate may help reduce your stroke risk. Talk with your doctor or dietitian about whether it’s a good idea to try these.
  • Your activity level. You’ve heard it before, but we have to say it: regular exercise can reduce your risk of stroke.
    · Your stress level. Consider taking yoga, t’ai chi, qigong or meditation classes. These activities can help you learn how to approach life in a calmer, more centered way. The daily stresses of life can affect your blood pressure, and almost anyone can benefit from these kinds of stress-reducing activities.
  • Medication. If your doctor has prescribed medication for you, it’s extremely important to take it.

Managing diabetes
If you have diabetes, you can’t change that, but you can do your best to manage the condition. That means working hard to keep your blood sugar in the acceptable range. You can do this by eating well and by talking with a dietitian at least once a year, talking with your diabetes educator regularly and scheduling appointments with your healthcare team as recommended.

Quitting smoking
Smoking tends to speed of the process of atherosclerosis, or blockage in the arteries. If you smoke and you’ve had trouble quitting, get some help from your doctor. There’s no question that quitting smoking is hard. That’s why so many people need help! You doctor can give you advice about different way to quit, offer encouragement, etc.

Managing heart disease
If you do have heart disease, be sure to visit your doctor regularly, talk regularly with a dietitian or nurse practitioner about your exercise and diet routines, take any medication that’s been prescribed and learn to manage your stress level. It’s easy to say, but not always easy to do. Involve your loved ones in your care. Make sure to reach out to them and let them know when you’re having a bad day. Allow them to help you stick to a healthy diet and an exercise program. Do whatever it takes to help you stay on track, because the more successful you are at managing your symptoms of heart disease, the lower your risk of stroke.

If you haven’t been to your doctor lately, schedule an appointment soon. It’s your first step in finding out whether you’re at risk for stroke and what you need to do about it.

The American Stroke Association; The Stroke Association of America; A. Weil. Eating Well for Optimum Health. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York, 10022, 2000.
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