A stroke occurs when blood supply to a part of your brain is interrupted or cut off and, as a result, brain cells are deprived of oxygen. This can happen either due to a blockage or bleeding in and around the brain.
Though the signs and symptoms of a stroke can vary from person to person, the most common symptoms are face drooping, speech difficulties and muscle weakness on one side of the body.
Strokes are a leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States. But, did you know that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented? This can be done by controlling the risk factors, which include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.
Also, remember that when a stroke strikes, every minute counts. So, call an ambulance right away to lower the risk of death or disability.
Here are some useful tips to help prevent or delay a stroke.
1. Quit Smoking and Limit Alcohol Use
When compared to non-smokers, smokers are two times more likely to have an ischemic stroke which is caused by a narrowing or blocking of arteries to the brain.
A 2008 study of women ages 15 to 49 published in the journal Stroke found that there is a dose-response relationship between the current number of cigarettes smoked per day and ischemic stroke risk. In other words, stroke risk is proportional to how much a person smokes.
Try to quit smoking, and seek professional help if needed. It will also improve your overall health and reduce the risk of other serious conditions.
Also, limit your alcohol intake as heavy drinking increases the risk of strokes. Men should not drink more than 3 to 4 units a day. Women should not drink more than 2 to 3 units a day. One unit of alcohol is about ½ pint of weak beer, a small pub measure of spirits or ½ standard glass of wine.
2. Control High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is one of the main risk factors for strokes. People often do not treat high blood pressure aggressively because it does not have any outward telltale signs.
The American Heart Association reports that only about 45 percent of people with high blood pressure actually have it under control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with uncontrolled high blood pressure are four times more likely to die from a stroke than those with normal blood pressure.
Take your blood pressure medicine as directed, get regular checkups and make necessary lifestyle changes like limiting salt intake to help regulate your blood pressure.
3. Make Healthy Eating Choices
Follow a healthy diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains like apples, pears, berries, cherries, pomegranate, broccoli, kale, spinach, avocados, almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and others. Your diet should be high in fiber and antioxidants, and low in saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars.
Plus, the American Heart Association recommends eating green leafy vegetables along with fortified grains and cereals to get enough folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12.
These nutrients are associated with lower levels of an amino acid called homocysteine in the blood. High levels of this amino acid are linked to cardiovascular problems, including strokes.
4. Get Regular Exercise
Being physically active helps you remain fit and healthy. Regular exercise also helps lower cholesterol, regulate high blood pressure, control diabetes and prevent harmful clots.
A 2015 study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation found that women who were physically active a few times per week had lower risks of heart disease, strokes and blood clots than inactive women.
Moderate-intensity aerobic activity for about 20 minutes daily is fine for most people. You can pick an activity you enjoy like brisk walking, swimming, dancing, gardening, cycling or Tai chi. Also, be more active during the day by taking the stairs instead of the elevator and parking your car further away from your office.
Ask your doctor to help you prepare a proper exercise plan with the types and amount of activity that is safe for you.
5. Trim Your Waist and Watch Your Weight
A 2003 Northern Manhattan Stroke study found that abdominal obesity is an independent, strong risk factor for ischemic strokes and has a greater effect among younger individuals.
Abdominal obesity increases production of low-density lipoproteins (LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol) that can be deposited in the blood vessel walls, raising your risk of heart disease and strokes. Generally, a waist-to-hip ratio of more than 1.0 in men and 0.85 in women puts you at a greater risk of diseases.
Moreover, excess weight puts extra burden on your circulatory system. It also puts you at a higher risk of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, all of which are key risk factors for strokes.
Take steps to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your waist-to-hip circumference ratio. Also, steer clear of soft drinks. A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that soft drink intake can increase the risk of ischemic strokes, especially for women.
6. Improve Cholesterol Levels
High cholesterol is another risk factor for strokes because it can block normal blood flow to the brain. It also raises your risk for heart disease.
High levels of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol with artery-clogging properties and triglycerides (blood fats), in particular, are associated with increased risk of ischemic strokes. High-density lipoproteins (HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol), however, seem to protect against strokes and heart attacks.
Improve your cholesterol levels by incorporating more fiber-rich and plant-based foods and fewer meats in your diet. Also, steam, bake, broil or grill your food instead of frying and cut down on saturated fats. A more active rather than sedentary lifestyle will also help.
7. Manage Diabetes
Several studies have found that people with diabetes are at a greater risk for strokes. In fact, diabetes is a strong risk factor for ischemic strokes. The high levels of glucose in the blood can damage the arteries and increase the buildup of fatty deposits, thus increasing the chances of blood vessels becoming blocked. If this happens to an artery leading to the brain, it can cause a stroke.
To help prevent a stroke, it is imperative to control your blood sugar levels, eat heart-healthy foods and incorporate at least 30 minutes of physical activity in your daily routine.
Also, according to some studies, taking a low dose of aspirin daily can help lower your risk of heart disease and strokes. However, it may not be safe for everyone, so talk to your doctor about taking aspirin and the correct dosage.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Martin M. Mortazavi, MD (Neurosurgeon)
Will aspirin help prevent a stroke?
Yes. It decreases the ability of blood platelets to clot.
Can drinking ample amounts of water prevent strokes?
Drinking water in moderation is good. Too little hydration makes the blood thick, increasing risk of stroke.
Is it possible for stroke patients to make a full recovery?
Yes, with timely, proper treatment and rehab they can make a full recovery.
What are the chances of having a second stroke?
It depends on the causes of stroke. If a stroke is caused by irregular heart rhythm or a tight neck vessel, and they are properly treated, the risk returns back to normal. If the stroke is caused by a vascular malformation such as AVM, DAVF or an aneurysm and is timely treated then the risk is same as that for a normal person.
But, if the cause of the stroke cannot be treated, such as, general bad quality of the vessels, then the risk is higher for a second stroke.
Can the brain repair itself after a stroke?
Rarely. Only small parts of the brain have minimalist ability to grow. However, the remaining undamaged nerves can try, and take over some functions lost to stroke.
Can high levels of stress trigger a stroke?
Yes, in short term because it causes high blood pressure which can lead to rupturing of a blood vessel. Long term stress leads to chronic increased levels of inherent cortisol that changes the metabolism of the body, leading to bad quality vessels, including vessels of the brain, which can lead to stroke.
Is paralysis from a stroke a permanent condition?
Might be or might improve after a few months of neuro-rehabilitation.
Do strokes always cause speech impairment?
No. Speech impairment happens if the stroked part of brain includes speech areas.
Does a stroke affect the memory of the person also?
It can, but not always.
What is the immediate medical aid that should be given to a stroke victim?
Immediate admission to a Comprehensive Stroke Center is advised, which has the ability to evacuate bleeding, treat aneurysm and take out clots build within the vessels. This treatment is time sensitive. If too many hours have passed by, even proper intervention will not restore proper functioning.
About Dr. Martin M. Mortazavi, MD: Dr. Mortazavi is the founding Chairman of the National Skull Base Center. He is also the founding Chairman of the California Institute of Neuroscience and the Director of its Cerebrovascular, Skull Base and Tumor program.
Dr. Mortazavi pursued a postdoctoral research fellowship in neurotrauma and regeneration at Barrow Neurological Institute. In addition to treating the full panorama of Brain and Spine diseases, Dr. Mortazavi treats complex tumors and vascular lesions of the brain and the spinal cord.