How to Reduce Your Risk of Stroke

Stroke is one of the most common causes of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States. The disease affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when blood flow is cut off to part of your brain. When blood can’t reach the brain, it can leave permanent damage to movement, sight and cognitive function.

Most strokes are caused by a sudden blockage or narrowing of the arteries, reducing the flow of blood. These are called ischemic strokes. Other strokes are caused when a blood vessel bursts and results in bleeding into the brain tissue. These are called hemorrhagic strokes.

While genetics or family history may play a part in your chance of having a stroke, the majority of risk factors are related to lifestyle choices. In fact, 80% of strokes can be prevented.

Lower your blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the number one cause of strokes. It is the reason for more than half of all strokes. Hypertension puts constant stress on arteries, damaging or weakening them and making them able to burst or clog more easily. It can also cause cholesterol and other fats to build up, narrowing the artery walls or causing a clot to form and break off. 

Certain lifestyle changes can help you manage your blood pressure. Regular exercise, reduced stress, and a healthy, balanced diet can help lower your risk of stroke. Your doctor may also prescribe medication to help lower and control your blood pressure. 

Stop tobacco use.

If you use tobacco, your risk of stroke doubles. The nicotine in cigarettes raises blood pressure and the carbon monoxide in smoke lowers the amount of oxygen your blood can carry. Breathing in secondhand smoke also increases your chances of a stroke.

Tobacco use also increases your risk of stroke by:

  • Lowering your levels of “good” HDL cholesterol
  • Raising your levels of a fat found in blood called triglycerides
  • Making your blood more likely to clot
  • Thickening and narrowing blood vessels and damaging their linings
  • Increasing the likelihood of plaque buildup in your arteries

Quitting smoking or any other tobacco use and avoiding secondhand smoke exposure greatly reduces your risk of stroke. There are several ways to help you quit smoking including counseling, nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine patches or gum, and prescription medications. 

Lower your cholesterol.

Our bodies naturally create cholesterol and we take it in when we eat certain foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy products. High levels of cholesterol can cause plaque to build up in the arteries and make them clog, leading to stroke. LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, should be kept under 100 mg/dL. HDL, or “good” cholesterol, should be kept above 60 mg/dL.

Getting blood tested regularly can help you know your cholesterol levels and make any necessary changes to keep your levels healthy. Regular exercise and a healthy diet low in “bad” cholesterol can help manage your levels and reduce your risk of stroke. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to lower your cholesterol. 

Manage your diabetes.

High blood sugar makes you up to four times more likely to have a stroke. If diabetes isn’t managed well, it can lead to the buildup of clots or fat deposits inside the vessels that supply blood to the neck and brain. This is a condition called atherosclerosis. The buildup can cause a narrowing of the blood vessel wall or a blockage that cuts off blood supply to the brain, leading to stroke. If you have diabetes, make sure to have your blood sugar checked regularly. Take medications as prescribed and see your doctor regularly so they can monitor your blood sugar. Your doctor may also recommend an individualized diet plan to help manage your blood sugar levels.

Exercise regularly.

Being physically inactive can lead to conditions that increase your risk of stroke, such as obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Just 30 minutes of moderate activity, five days a week can reduce your risk of stroke by more than 25%. Regular exercise can help your heart pump blood more efficiently and strongly, slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries, lower your blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar, reduce cholesterol levels, and help you maintain a healthy weight - all factors that greatly reduce your risk of stroke.

Eat a healthy diet.

A diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and high-fiber foods can help reduce your risk of stroke by helping to lower your blood pressure, manage cholesterol levels, and maintain a healthy weight. Avoid trans fats and saturated fats, which can cause fatty buildup in your arteries. Reduce the amount of salt in your diet, and limit red meat, fried foods, and processed foods, as these can raise your blood pressure. 

Manage your atrial fibrillation.

An irregular heartbeat in the upper chamber of the heart, known as atrial fibrillation, can lead to stroke. Atrial fibrillation causes blood to pool in the heart’s upper chambers and form blood clots. These clots can then break free and travel to the brain, where they can block blood flow and lead to a stroke. You may have atrial fibrillation due to high blood pressure, a buildup of plaque in the arteries, heart failure, or other reasons. 

If you have atrial fibrillation, your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medications that can help prevent clots from forming. They may also prescribe medications that help maintain a regular heartbeat. Medical procedures such as electrical cardioversion, catheter ablation, or other surgical intervention may be needed to restore a regular heartbeat.

Avoid excess alcohol use.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol can greatly increase your risk of stroke. Having more than two drinks a day can raise your blood pressure and the amount of triglycerides in your blood - two factors that increase the chance of stroke. It can also cause certain heart conditions, such as atrial fibrillation, that contribute to stroke. Limiting your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day or refraining from alcohol use can reduce your risk of stroke, as well as other related medical conditions.  

Learn more about Lifespan's Comprehensive and Primary Stroke Centers.