Stroke cases are increasing at an alarming rate globally, even among young adults and children.
According to concerning new data from the World Stroke Organization and Lancet Neurology Commission, stroke deaths could reach a staggering 9.7 million per year by 2050, up from 6.6 million in 2020.
This shows an urgent need to address the major risk factors for stroke and make lifestyle changes to reduce risk.
What Causes Stroke?
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients.
This can happen due to either a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or the leakage or bursting of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke).
The symptoms of stroke include:
- Numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Vision problems in one or both eyes
- Difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Severe headache with no known cause
- Loss of consciousness
A stroke is a medical emergency. Immediate treatment is crucial to minimize brain damage and potential complications. The sooner a stroke is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcomes tend to be.
Major Risk Factors for Stroke
The major risk factors that can increase your chances of having a stroke include:
High Blood Pressure
Uncontrolled high blood pressure, also called hypertension, is the leading cause of both ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke.
High blood pressure damages the blood vessels and makes them stiffer, weaker and more prone to clogging and rupture.
The risk of stroke increases dramatically as blood pressure rises.
Some ways to control blood pressure include medication, reducing salt intake, exercise, losing weight if overweight, limiting alcohol, quitting smoking, and managing stress.
Various heart conditions can lead to stroke, including an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, heart valve problems, and enlarged heart chambers.
These disorders allow blood clots to form in the heart, which can travel through the arteries and lodge in the brain, blocking blood flow.
Managing heart disease through medication, surgery or lifestyle changes helps lower stroke risk. Blood-thinning medications are also commonly prescribed to prevent clots.
Having diabetes, especially if blood sugar levels are frequently elevated, almost doubles the risk of stroke.
Uncontrolled diabetes can damage blood vessels and nerves throughout the body, increasing clotting risk.
Rigorously managing blood sugar levels through medication, diet and exercise is key to reducing stroke risk in diabetic patients.
Obesity and Lack of Physical Activity
Being overweight or obese stresses the circulatory system and metabolic processes, hiking blood pressure, blood sugars and inflammation.
Excess weight also increases risk of heart disease and atrial fibrillation. Being physically inactive further compounds issues.
Regular exercise helps control weight, lowers blood pressure and blood sugar, strengthens the heart, and boosts good cholesterol levels, all protecting against stroke.
Even light to moderate exercise helps reduce risk.
Smoking cigarettes promotes the buildup of fatty deposits in arteries, raises blood pressure and makes blood stickier and more prone to clotting. Secondhand smoke also increases stroke risk.
Smoking is linked to a 2-4 times higher risk of stroke compared to non-smokers.
Quitting smoking reduces risk substantially within 5 years. Avoiding secondhand smoke is also very important in preventing stroke.
Exposure to high levels of small particulate matter (PM2.5) in polluted air can potentially alter blood pressure, increase blood clotting tendency and inflammation, and cause artery damage and rhythm disorders.
Long-term exposure is correlated with a higher risk of ischemic stroke, especially in people over age 60. Reducing outdoor activity during days with heavy pollution can lower risk. Air purifiers at home may also help.
Age and Family History
Aging naturally increases stroke risk due to changes in blood vessels and higher incidence of related conditions like high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation.
Having a close family member who had a stroke also raises your risk. While these factors cannot be modified, early screening and prevention measures become especially important.
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
While some risk factors like age and family history cannot be changed, many can be managed and even reversed through lifestyle measures and habit changes. Some of the most effective ways to lower stroke risk include:
Follow a Healthy and Balanced Diet
Your dietary habits significantly impact almost all major stroke risk factors. A healthy diet should emphasize:
- Plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains – These provide antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals which protect blood vessels.
- Lean protein sources like fish, skinless poultry, legumes, nuts and seeds – These provide healthy unsaturated fats.
- Low salt intake – This prevents hypertension and its consequences. Avoid processed/canned foods high in sodium.
- Limited added sugars – This helps control calories, blood sugar and diabetes risk. Avoid sugary drinks and limit sweets.
- Low saturated and trans fats – These unhealthy fats contribute to atherosclerosis and inflammation. Limit red meat and avoid trans fats completely.
- Limited alcohol intake – Heavy alcohol use increases blood pressure and stroke risk. Moderation is key.
A Mediterranean-style diet rich in produce, lean proteins, nuts, healthy oils and whole grains ticks all the boxes for stroke prevention.
Make regular physical activity part of your daily routine. Things to keep in mind:
- Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, like brisk walking, swimming, cycling or basic aerobics. This strengthens the heart, burns calories and lowers blood pressure.
- For weight loss benefits, aim for 300 minutes per week. Combine cardio with strength training.
- Any movement helps – take the stairs, walk breaks at work, do housework briskly, garden, etc. The key is staying active through the day.
- Intensity matters too. Interval training and high intensity workouts have extra benefits for fitness and cardiovascular health.
Lose Excess Weight
If overweight or obese, work on gradually reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight through changes in eating habits and exercise levels.
Even a 10% weight loss can translate to noticeable reductions in blood pressure and diabetes risk.
Quit Smoking and Limit Alcohol
Quitting smoking is absolutely essential to lower stroke risk. Seek medical aid if needed to successfully stop smoking.
Also limit alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink a day for women, 2 for men. Avoid binge drinking episodes.
Monitor Blood Pressure
Check your blood pressure regularly. Work with your doctor to keep levels consistently under control through medication, diet and lifestyle changes.
At home monitoring and tracking of levels is also very useful.
Carefully manage diabetes through medication, meal planning and blood sugar monitoring. Consult with both your doctor and dietitian.
Try to keep HbA1c levels in normal range. Also have your blood cholesterol and triglycerides checked annually.
Chronic stress can increase blood pressure, blood sugars and inflammation markers.
Make time for relaxation daily through yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, nature walks, etc. Get good sleep. Seek counseling if feeling overwhelmed. Managing stress helps protect your mind and body.
Stroke risk can seem complex and multifactorial. But focusing on making one lifestyle change at a time can put you on the right track to reducing your chances of having a stroke.
Over time, your improved habits have a cumulative positive effect on your cardiovascular health. Remember to also get health screenings and regularly consult your doctor about stroke prevention.
With a balanced diet, active lifestyle and well-managed risk factors, you can avoid being part of the projected surge in stroke cases and minimize complications should a stroke occur.
Your brain and body will thank you.