If there’s one good thing that can be said of strokes, it’s this: The vast majority of them don’t need to happen. Up to 80% of strokes can be prevented through healthy lifestyle changes and working with health care practitioners to control stroke risk factors. Researchers have identified numerous steps people can take to lower stroke risk, but health experts agree, trying to do them all at once can feel overwhelming.
Here are five ways to get started on the road to prevention.
1. Start early. Strokes happen to young people, too. About 10%-15% of all strokes occur in adults age 50 or under. And, recent research shows the same factors that cause strokes in older adults – such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and diabetes – are causing strokes in younger adults.
The AHA recommends people start monitoring their blood pressure, cholesterol, lipids and blood sugar levels as soon as they transition from a pediatrician to a primary care physician as a young adult.
2. If you smoke, quit. Studies show that for every five cigarettes a person smokes each day, the risk of having a stroke goes up by 12%. For Black adults, smoking cigarettes more than doubles the risk of stroke compared to never smoking, a 2020 study found.
We all understand that smoking causes lung cancer, but most don’t understand that it also damages the brain and blood vessels. In terms of stroke prevention, quitting smoking is the lowest hanging fruit.
3. Keep blood pressure under control. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is the leading cause of strokes. Half of all men – 52% – and 43% of women in the U.S. have blood pressure that is too high, according to AHA statistics. While it can be controlled through lifestyle changes or by taking medication, only about one in five adults keep it properly managed. Smoking, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and eating an unhealthy diet can push blood pressure out of the healthy range.
Check your blood pressure often to keep it in check and share your numbers with your medical provider.
4. Eat a healthy diet. Being careful to choose healthy foods can minimize weight gain. And keep in mind that nutrition is more important than weight loss.
There are multiple diets shown to decrease the risk of strokes such as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) or Mediterranean diets. Both emphasize eating a lot of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish and nuts, while cutting back on foods high in saturated fats, cholesterol and trans fats.
5. Move more. More active men and women have a 25%-30% lower risk of stroke than those who are least active. Physical activity has been shown to lower cholesterol, help maintain a healthy weight and lower blood pressure – all factors that can reduce stroke risk.
The evidence for physical activity is undeniable. Even just moving around for 10 minutes every hour is better than sitting for an extended period of time. You don’t have to run a 5K. Walking is the best exercise there -get up and walk around.
Work SMARTER, not harder
Changing lifestyle habits, especially the new habits picked up during quarantine doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking. Set SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) and then break it into parts and stick to it until you reach it. Having a partner can help maintain motivation, as long as that person has healthy habits.
Start with activities you already enjoy and challenge yourself to do more of it. May is National Bike Month and Stroke Awareness Month. Cycling can be a great low-impact or high-intensity activity that can promote both heart and brain health by strengthening the heart muscles, helping lower the resting pulse, and reducing cholesterol. Cycling can also help maintain brain function and mental sharpness.
Someone in the U.S. dies from stroke about every four minutes and from heart disease about once every 84 seconds. The good news is that cardiovascular diseases, including strokes, are largely preventable with proper amounts of physical activity and healthy eating. Cycling could make the difference.
Get started this month with CycleNation Austin
Austin CycleNation is a month-long experience where you are encouraged to define your “ride” and get active any way you want – all for a cause. The 30-Day experience presented is locally by Comfort Systems USA, Mtech-Icon. Register today and get started by signing up for the Move More Challenge at www.cyclenation.org/austin.