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2012 ISSUE 2

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Controllable Risk Factors

How lifestyle changes and treating disease can lower risk

By Lisa Pogue

Reducing your risk of stroke can be as simple as cutting alcohol from your diet, addressing ongoing circulation problems, or working with a healthcare professional to stay well. In fact, studies show that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented by working with a healthcare professional to reduce risk—so taking action counts.

Even if you have never been considered high-risk and tend to live a somewhat healthy lifestyle, it’s important to manage your personal stroke risk and make a conscious effort to protect your body.

Treat Diseases That Increase Stroke Risk

With a doctor’s help, many diseases that increase risk can be treated—making strokes less likely.

High blood pressure, the most important risk factor for stroke, causes the heart to work harder to move blood through the body, putting unnecessary stress on blood vessels and damaging major organs. For people over age 18, an optimal blood pressure reading is 120/80 or lower. High blood pressure or stage one hypertension is a measurement of 140/90 or higher. Talk to your doctor, know your numbers and control high blood pressure through diet, exercise, medication or a combination of all three.

Atrial fibrillation (Afib) occurs when the two upper chambers of the heart beat unpredictably, causing an irregular heartbeat and allowing blood to pool in the heart. Pooled blood tends to form clots that can be carried to the brain, making someone with Afib five times more likely to have a stroke. Take preventive steps by self-testing for an irregular heartbeat and discussing your risk for Afib with your doctor. Visit www.facingafib.com for more information.

High cholesterol results from plaque build-up in the arteries that can block normal blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke. To reduce this risk, cut back on foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, lose excess weight and exercise daily. Anyone over age 20 should have their cholesterol checked once every five years, while men over 45 and women over 55 should be checked annually.

People with diabetes are four times more likely to have a stroke than those who don’t have the disease. Because diabetes is linked to numerous health problems that can lead to stroke, someone with diabetes should be careful to watch high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and blood sugar levels.

Circulation problems include anything that disturbs the movement of blood from your heart to your brain. Often fatty, artery-blocking deposits or the progressive buildup of plaque (known as atherosclerosis) are to blame. Ask your doctor to check for atherosclerosis by listening to your arteries or conducting an ultrasound or MRI. Circulation problems can usually be treated with medicine.

Change Your Lifestyle Risk Factors

Make some everyday lifestyle adjustments and lower your chance of stroke.

Smoking doubles the risk of stroke by reducing the amount of oxygen in the blood, making your heart work harder and increasing the chance of blood clots. The habit also damages blood vessel walls, speeds up the clogging of arteries and raises blood pressure. An obvious fix: Quit smoking to greatly reduce stroke risk.

Alcohol use has been linked to stroke in many studies. Though conflicting reports do exist, the majority of healthcare professionals agree that drinking more than one to two drinks a day can increase stroke risk and lead to other medical problems.

Obesity and excess weight strain your circulatory system and are directly linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Lower your obesity and stroke risk by eating healthier and upping your amount of exercise to an hour a day. Keep your diet low in calories, fat, salt and cholesterol—all of which contribute to high blood pressure.

Your Stroke Risk Scorecard

Visit www.stroke.org and fill out the Stroke Risk Scorecard to evaluate your current risk level. The National Stroke Association scorecard provides a checkbox for risk factors that include diabetes, blood pressure levels and exercise habits, clearly noting high risk, caution or low risk. Total up your answers and get instant feedback about your current risk level.

Quick Guide to Reducing Your Risk

  • Know your blood pressure
  • Find out whether you have atrial fibrillation (Afib)
  • If you smoke, stop
  • Find out if you have high cholesterol
  • If diabetic, follow recommendations to control your diabetes
  • Include exercise in your daily routine
  • Enjoy a lower-sodium, lower-fat diet
  • Ask your healthcare professional how to reduce your risk of stroke

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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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