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How To Prevent A Stroke: Lifestyle Hacks & Risk Factors To Know, According To Research

Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN
mbg Vice President of Scientific Affairs By Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN
mbg Vice President of Scientific Affairs
Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN is Vice President of Scientific Affairs at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's degree in Biological Basis of Behavior from the University of Pennsylvania and Ph.D. in Foods and Nutrition from the University of Georgia.
Mother and daughter eating healthy

Annually nearly 800,000 American adults suffer a stroke, plus it's the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. And before you write it off as something that only affects older adults, it's important to note people of any age can experience a stroke.

Since this distinct type of cardiovascular disease reduces the blood supply and functions of the brain, the effects of stroke can be widespread and result in long-term disability (or death). But with rapid treatment, recovery from a stroke is possible.

When it comes to recognizing the signs of stroke, speed is crucial. If you don't know the top stroke symptoms, I highly recommend the American Stroke Association's FAST tool, short for: Face drooping. Arm weakness. Speech difficulty. Time to call 911.

While there's no foolproof guarantee against stroke, scientific research clearly shows that two things are crucial: understanding the risk factors and knowing how to make healthy lifestyle choices to mitigate stroke risk.

First, the top risk factors for stroke.

Some stroke risk factors simply aren't malleable—genes, age, sex, and race/ethnicity—yet awareness is key. Additionally, certain modifiable health conditions and lifestyle choices represent important opportunities to help ward off stroke.

Older age (greater than 65 years) and female sex increase stroke risk, but younger adults and men are still affected and should remain equally vigilant. In fact, over the past few decades, stroke has been on the rise in young adults, especially in men. Overall, young adults ages 18 to 50 represent 10 to 15% of total strokes in the U.S.

Racial health inequities are also evident. Strokes are more likely to affect African American, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native people than non-Hispanic White or Asian individuals. Moreover, the risk of experiencing a stroke and dying from it is almost double for African American than for Caucasian people. 

The treatment and management of certain diseases will lower your risk of stroke. These include sickle cell anemia, abnormal heart structure, atrial fibrillation, and previous stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA, or "mini-stroke").

Additionally, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes are modifiable conditions tied to increased stroke risk. The latest science also tells us that stroke is a possible complication of COVID-19 infection, even in young adults.

Lastly, two particular lifestyle habits—excessive alcohol consumption and tobacco smoking—are factors that increase chances of having a stroke.

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These lifestyle hacks help combat stroke.

Now that you know the major risk factors at play, here are six, evidence-based lifestyle approaches to combat stroke:

1. Eat a healthy diet. 

Aim for nutrient density, healthy fats, portion control, and more whole foods. Limit processed foods (with excess sodium) by shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. Color your plate with whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, dairy, and fish. These food groups have been linked to reduced risk of stroke

If you're looking for a more specific diet plan and recipe ideas to follow, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and Mediterranean diet have the most high-quality research backing them for stroke protection.

2. Move regularly.

Physical inactivity is tied to health conditions that increase stroke risk (obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes). The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week. Mixing things up with aerobic, resistance, and flexibility activities is the ideal approach.

Your physical activity routine probably looks different during this COVID-19 pandemic, and that's OK. Whether yoga, cardio dance, or weight lifting, there are loads of online videos to follow and keep things fresh when it comes to indoor exercise. If possible, head outside (with your mask on) and take a walk or jog

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3. Aim for a healthy weight.

Research reveals that obesity is a risk factor for ischemic stroke, even in young adults. Excess weight and a higher waist-to-hip ratio (a measure of abdominal obesity) are tied to a host of cardiometabolic risk factors like elevated blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar (i.e., diabetes). The obesity/stroke link is thought to be mediated by these cardiometabolic factors.

Healthful nutrition and physical activity (see above) are pivotal factors in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and muscle mass, a critical player in metabolism.

4. Prioritize a good night's rest.

Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night. This recommendation is not just a nice-to-have. Chronic disruption of sleep duration or quality is tied to an array of negative health effects, including an increase in weight, blood pressure, and diabetes. Do those sound familiar? They are stroke risk factors.

While the science is still shaking out, it's thought that getting too little or too much sleep over time increases stroke risk. Scientists are more certain that sleep disorders (sleep apnea, insomnias, parasomnias, sleep-related movement disorders, etc.) are "bedfellows" with stroke, escalating its risk and recurrence

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5. Consume alcohol in moderation.

Drinking alcohol in excess over time can increase blood pressure and lipid levels (triglycerides), both of which can lead to a stroke. Heavy drinking elevates the risk for both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes, while light and moderate alcohol consumption are tied to a lower risk of ischemic stroke.

The current definition of moderation is no more than one alcoholic drink per day for women and no more than two drinks for men. This definition may be updated in the upcoming 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) publication, with a more conservative cutoff adopted for men, at one drink max per day. (The DGA is set to release in December 2020.)

6. Quit the tobacco.

Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke negatively affects nearly every organ in the body, and it's a leading cause of stroke. In fact, a 2019 meta-analysis determined that the risk of stroke goes up by 12% for every 5 cigarettes smoked per day.

Along with increasing blood pressure and reducing the oxygen your blood can carry, cigarette smoking damages blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the brain. Smoking does this several ways, by elevating triglyceride levels and plaque accumulation, thickening and narrowing blood vessels, lowering HDL (good) cholesterol, and increasing blood clotting.

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The bottom line.

For stroke prevention, we have the ability to take control of several, modifiable risk factors. The top six lifestyle strategies to leverage include a healthful diet, physical activity, healthy weight, adequate sleep, moderate alcohol consumption, and no tobacco use. Application of this science-backed intel on stroke prevention could ultimately reduce the burden of stroke and loss of life.

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