Strokes are caused when blood circulation to the brain fails, which causes a type of “brain attack” that can be devastating to individuals. Strokes accounted for 5.2% of all deaths in Australia in 2016, with over 395,000 people having a stroke at some time in their lives. And worrying, the proportion of people who were left with a disability following a stroke sits at around 40%.
However, it might surprise you to know that more than 80% of strokes can actually be prevented. That’s a whopping number of strokes that just don’t need to happen!
There are plenty of steps you can take now to give yourself the best chance of preventing a stroke later on. Here’s how to protect one of your most important assets – your brain.
Get your blood pressure down
The leading cause of strokes is high blood pressure, and too many of us fail to manage our blood pressure properly. Blood pressure can be raised by obesity, smoking, unhealthy eating, high cholesterol and diabetes – and it’s wise to do everything you can to bring it down. Aim to:
- Eat less salt (ideally no more than half a teaspoon per day)
- Avoid foods high in saturated fats
- Eat fish two-three times per week
- Eat two serves of fruit and five serves of veggies every day
- Don’t smoke
- Get enough exercise
- Take medication if you’ve been advised to
Read more about how high blood pressure can damage your brain here.
Lose weight … and keep it off
Your risk of having a stroke is significantly increased if you’re carrying around too much weight. Although it’s really not being overweight itself that leads to the heightened stroke risk, but rather the related problems caused by excess weight. These include high blood pressure and diabetes. Manage the number of calories you consume and increase the amount of exercise you do to help keep your weight in the healthy range.
Stop smoking – or don’t even start
Smoking doesn’t just cause lung cancer, it’s also responsible for damaging the blood vessels and brain. Smoking is seriously bad for you in every way, and can make strokes much more likely. Smoking regularly will accelerate clot formation, thicken your blood and increase the amount of plaque build-up in your arteries.
If you’re serious about reducing your stroke risk, giving up smoking is one of the most powerful things you can do, as this will significantly reduce your risk. Your doctor should be able to help you with strategies for successfully kicking the habit. And if you don’t smoke – don’t start!
Drink alcohol in moderation
Alcohol is a prime culprit in raising your blood pressure, which, as outlined above, has a direct correlation to your risk of stroke. It’s smart to avoid drinking too much alcohol. Two drinks a day should be fine for men, and women should limit themselves to one drink a day as a general rule.
Make exercise a priority
Being physically active can help take care of many of the risk factors for stroke, such as being overweight or obese, having high cholesterol and high blood pressure levels. In fact, active people have a 25 – 30% lower risk of stroke than people who are least active. The evidence for physical activity in reducing stroke risk is undeniable, and this is one of the top three things you should be focussing on to reduce your risk of stroke.
Aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a day, or a minimum of two-and-a-half hours per week. This doesn’t all have to be done in one hit either – but can be broken up into smaller sessions throughout the day.
It’s never too late to start exercising either – read more here.
Embrace healthy eating
Eating healthy foods will lower your risk for strokes by preventing high cholesterol and lowering your blood pressure. Foods that are high in fibre and low in saturated fats, trans fat, cholesterol and salt will go a long way to reducing your stroke risk. Aim to eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, wholegrains and low-fat dairy – and cut back on the rest.
Lower your cholesterol
High cholesterol can lead to a stroke by contributing to blood vessel disease. And while it can sometimes be hereditary, it is often caused by a diet high in saturated fats. As with everything else, you’ll need to by physically active, eat a healthy diet, maintain a healthy weight, and cut out or limit alcohol and smoking.
If you have diabetes, keep it under control
Unregulated diabetes, and having high blood sugar, will damage your blood vessels and make clots more likely to form. You’ll need to manage your diabetes and keep your blood sugar under control with a combination of diet, exercise and medication.
Take atrial fibrillation seriously
This condition – a form of irregular heartbeat – can cause clots to form in the heart which can then travel to the brain, leading to a stroke. If you suspect you may have atrial fibrillation (symptoms include heart palpitations and shortness of breath), see your doctor ASAP to get properly examined. You may need to take medication to reduce your stroke risk from this condition.
In fact, any kind of heart disease is associated with a higher risk of stroke, so treat heart disease seriously and follow your doctor’s instructions when managing your condition.
Have regular health checks
Many health conditions can lead to strokes, particularly if they are unrecognised or untreated, so make sure you visit your doctor regularly for a health check. This will enable you to stay on top of any developing health conditions, and to manage them appropriately before they get out of hand.
Don’t ignore mini strokes
Mini-strokes, known as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are short episodes where you only experience the signs of a stroke very briefly. These may include numbness or weakness, confusion, trouble seeing or walking, dizziness, loss of coordination, severe headaches, drowsiness, nausea or vomiting. People often ignore these episodes, as they don’t last long – but they are signs of an underlying condition that is not going to go away on its own. If you notice these episodes happening, get medical help as soon as practical, as this may very well save your life.
Take your medication as prescribed
It’s no good being prescribed medication to lower your stroke risk, but then failing to take it or stopping it too soon (which at least 25% of people are guilty of). If your doctor has prescribed medication, make sure you take it until you’ve been advised it is safe to stop.
Don’t be a statistic
A huge number of strokes can be prevented by making these healthy lifestyle changes and taking control of any high-risk health conditions. And it’s best to begin as early as possible. Make sure you work with your health care team to lock in the best strategy for lowering your stroke risk – especially once you hit the age of 55.