Stroke affects nearly 800,000 people each year, but did you know that 80% of all strokes can be prevented? Genetics aside, our lifestyle—what we eat, how active we are, and even the relationship we develop with our primary care physician—ultimately determines the future of our health, and it’s up to us to lead a life that permits reward and not elevated risk. So, which risk factors are avoidable, and how can we lower them?
Dr. Thomas Smith, M.D., Neurologist at Bon Secours Neurology Clinic, advises us to first acknowledge risk factors, and then re-evaluate lifestyle choices in order to reduce chances of suffering a stroke.
“There are four risk factors,” he explains. “The number one risk is high blood pressure, but smoking, high cholesterol, and diet and exercise, which leads to diabetes are also major risk factors that you can control. With your lifestyle alone, you can lower your risk of stroke by 80%.”
Because high blood pressure remains the largest risk factor amongst stroke victims, especially in the African American community, special attention must be paid to how it’s managed. Dr. Smith stresses the importance of sticking to the blood pressure medicine prescribed by your primary care physician. Develop a schedule, set reminders, and stay on top of refills to ensure you remain at healthy blood pressure levels.
“Keep it between 120 and 140 in the systolic, and below 90 for diastolic blood pressures,” he says. He also recommends maintaining follow-up appointments with your physician, which allows you to keep a close eye on your levels day in and day out and identify any causes for concern. Because hypertension is the number one risk factor for stroke, special attention must be paid to how it’s monitored and managed, even with all other lifestyle changes considered.
What are the other natural ways to prevent stroke and lower your risk factors?
- Quit smoking. The Center for Disease Control reports that the effects of smoking have a direct correlation to cardiovascular disease and stroke. Smoking makes blood more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain, and also lowers your levels of “good” cholesterol.
- Drink in moderation. Regular, heavy drinking causes a rise in blood pressure levels, contributes to obesity, changes the way your body responds to insulin (causing diabetes), and can trigger an irregular heartbeat, all of which are your largest risk factors for stroke. The Stroke Association recommends reducing your intake to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week for both men and women.
- Lower your cholesterol. Choosing foods with healthier fats lowers your cholesterol. Eliminate trans fats from your diet, eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and limit your red meat and dairy intake, which contain the saturated fat that raises “bad” cholesterol levels.
- Control stress levels. Develop natural ways to combat stress and anxiety. Research shows that stress is linked to an increase in bone marrow activity and to inflammation in the arteries, both of which can cause heart attack and stroke. Practice meditation or incorporate more exercise into your weekly routine in order to help stave off anxious thoughts that produce stress.
- Pay attention to migraines. According to the American Migraine Foundation, stroke occurs more frequently in persons who commonly experience migraine headaches. Women and those 45 and younger are especially affected, and face a larger risk of migraine-related stroke. Identify the signs of migraine, and incorporate natural remedies to keep the frequency low.
When it comes to heart disease and stroke, it’s imperative to not only identify risk factors, especially as it pertains to your specific racial group, but to also work with physicians and conduct your own research on the role you can play in lowering that risk. Knowing is half the battle; the real change begins when you make necessary lifestyle changes to prevent you from becoming a statistic.