Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and the leading cause of disability among Americans. If you aren’t doing something to decrease your stroke risk right now, you should be.
From diet to smoking to monitoring how many hours you spend sitting, these are the habits unknowingly increasing your chances of suffering — or dying — from a stroke.
What is a stroke?
When a blockage prevents oxygenated blood from reaching your brain, a stroke occurs. Occasionally, a blood vessel within the brain can become damaged or burst.
Your brain needs oxygen to continue performing its normal functions, and without it, its cells can become damaged or begin to die off completely. A stroke can cause brain damage and severe disability as a result. Many strokes are fatal.
What causes a stroke?
Plaque buildup in the arteries that transport blood to your brain can lead to stroke-causing blockages. Sometimes, blood clots can also prevent the brain from getting the oxygen it needs, resulting in brain cell damage and death.
High blood pressure or aneurysms are common causes of the types of strokes that occur inside the brain. Bleeding in the brain causes swelling, which can lead to irreversible brain damage.
What are the signs of stroke?
Unfortunately, when someone presents with the following signs, they’re already in danger. But the signs themselves are often easy to recognize both in yourself and others.
- Trouble standing or walking
- Difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Seeing double or experiencing blurred or loss of vision
- Numbness or paralysis in the face, arms, or legs.
A stroke requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent physical and psychological damage, disability, or death.
Who is most at risk?
Stroke risk increases if you’re diagnosed with conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or high cholesterol.
You’re also at greater risk based on your age, gender, and race. These are factors you unfortunately can’t control. Therefore, it’s important to focus on the lifestyle factors you can control when trying to reduce your stroke risk.
Not working out often enough
Physical activity reduces stroke risk significantly when paired with other positive lifestyle factors. It’s good for your heart and overall blood flow, as well as your brain. When you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to gain weight and engage in less healthy eating patterns — all things that increase your stroke risk.
Sitting too much
Sitting for long periods of time is actually one of the worst things you can do for your health. In fact, research has shown that excessive sitting increases heart attack and stroke risk even when you exercise regularly.
So working out for 30 minutes in the morning, following by eight hours or more of nonstop sitting, doesn’t do you much good. Get up and walk around at least once every hour to keep your heart and brain healthy.
Drinking too much alcohol
Research has shown that while light and moderate alcohol consumption seem to reduce stroke risk, heavy drinkers are at an increased risk of stroke. Alcohol can negatively influence your blood pressure, which increases your risk of suffering a brain bleed.
There’s nothing wrong with having a simple glass of wine with dinner. But too much can have devastating, even fatal, consequences.
Eating high-cholesterol foods
If you have high cholesterol, it’s important to limit foods that can raise LDL and lower HDL cholesterol levels.Too much dietary cholesterol can accumulate in your arteries, which makes up the plaque that can cause narrowing and blockages often associated with heart attacks and strokes.
Consuming too many calories
High calorie intake isn’t the only risk factor for overweight or obesity, but it’s still a major contributor in many cases.
Excessive weight gain — and the added fatty tissues associated with it — causes inflammation, which increases stroke risk. Overweight and obesity also increase your risk for other health conditions that elevate stroke risk, like diabetes.
Eating foods high in sugar
Experts warn that a diet high in added sugars — found in many processed foods and sugar-sweetened drinks — makes you more likely to die of heart disease. A diseased heart, whether due to high blood pressure or other factors, also increases your chances of suffering a potentially fatal stroke.
Eating salty foods
A high-salt diet raises blood pressure. Living with high blood pressure makes you more likely to suffer a brain bleed from a damaged blood vessel or ruptured aneurysm. You don’t have to cut out salt completely, but eating less of it can significantly improve your long-term health.
One of the easiest ways to reduce your sodium intake is to avoid adding extra salt to the foods you prepare. Try using herbs or other seasonings to add flavor to your food without raising your blood pressure.
Eating too much saturated fat
There’s conflicting research in regards to saturated fat’s negative health effects. Current dietary recommendations suggest consuming less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat, probably because foods high in saturated fat, like snack foods, also contain large amounts of calories, salt, and added sugars.
Limiting your intake, by default, might help you avoid severe health problems that could lead to a stroke.
You likely already know smoking damages your lungs. That’s only the beginning of its harmful effects on your body, however. Smoking raises bad cholesterol, damages blood vessels, increases your risk of developing blood clots, and more. All these factors put your heart, brain, and life in danger.
Health conditions that increase stroke risk
If you already have a chronic health condition, you’re already more likely to have a stroke. People with heart disease, diabetes, and sickle cell disease all need to take extra precautions to prevent stroke. You’re also in danger if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Habits that decrease stroke risk
If you’re already managing a health condition like high blood pressure, knowing your numbers and reducing your symptoms can help prevent a stroke.
Showing up to regular checkups with your doctor can help monitor your health and reduce any modifiable stroke risk factors before they become life-threatening. Making small changes to your diet and exercise routine can also make a huge difference.