What You can do to Prevent Strokes

Isn’t it interesting how maintaining a healthy weight, following a healthy diet and participating in regular exercise can ward off so many diseases? But lifestyle changes, says Jean Thomas, RN, stroke care specialist with Meritus Medical Center, are the most difficult changes to make.

In the hospital, Jean educates stroke patients on how to avoid future strokes and conducts a monthly stroke support group []. She finds that patients are motivated to make lifestyle changes after a stroke, but are less likely to proactively manage stroke risks.

A variety of risks factors can contribute to long-term vascular damage. “It’s all about vascular damage and the inflammatory process,” says Jean. Here are stroke risks you can control:

High blood pressure is the number-one cause of stroke. Chronic uncontrolled blood pressure creates high pressure against the delicate tissues of arterial walls and causes damage. Known as the silent killer, many people are unaware they have high blood pressure.

Prevention tip: Know your blood pressure numbers and get your blood pressure checked every year. A blood pressure higher than 139/89 mm Hg is considered high. You can find blood pressure kiosks in the Meritus Medical Center lobby, Robinwood Professional Center and at area grocery stores and pharmacies.

Nicotine and carbon monoxide damage arterial walls and make them thicken and narrow with accumulated plaque. In fact, smoking ages arteries by 20 to 30 years and tobacco use increases the risk of stroke by two to four times.

Prevention tip: Join a smoking cessation class. In less than three months, your circulation will improve making your blood less likely to form dangerous clots.

Alcohol raises blood pressure and can contribute to the hardening of your arteries. Misuse of prescription opioids and illegal drugs can also increase your risk of stroke.

Prevention tip: Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. People over 65 should consume no more than one alcoholic drink a day. Avoid illegal drugs at all costs.

A poor diet high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can raise blood cholesterol levels. In addition, taking in more calories than you burn leads to weight gain and possibly obesity and diabetes.

Prevention tip: Eat better by consuming more fruits, vegetables, fish, beans and lean meats like skinless chicken. Meet with a dietitian to learn how to incorporate these foods into your life.

Physical inactivity affects heart function and can lead to a host of risky health conditions including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight/obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Only 21 percent of adults meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s physical activity guidelines.

Prevention tip: Start by walking just 10 minutes each day and gradually increase walking to 30 minutes, five days a week. You’ll begin to experience more energy, less stress, better sleep and improved muscle strength.

Although you can’t change a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes or atrial fibrillation, you can manage and treat these diseases. People with atrial fibrillation or Afib are five times more likely to suffer a stroke and diabetics are two to four times more likely to have a stroke. Afib creates pools of blood leading to clotting and diabetes causes too much sugar in the blood stream which wreaks havoc on nerve and vascular tissue.

Prevention tip: See your physician regularly to manage both of these conditions.

“Stroke is not your grandmother’s disease,” says Jean. “Stroke can happen at any age—and it’s on the rise in younger adults.”

Jean encourages everyone to know the signs of stroke and to BE FAST by getting immediate medical attention. Stroke signs and symptoms include:

  • Balance problems, unsteady gait, dizziness, “room spinning” and possibly nausea/vomiting.
  • Eyes: vision changes including blurry or double vision, partial vision loss or blindness in one or both eyes.
  • Facial droop: muscle weakness to one side of the face often with an uneven smile.
  • Arm weakness or one-sided body weakness in face, arm and/or leg.
  • Speech changes: slurred or confused speech, difficulty finding words or mute.
  • Time to call 911: call 911 immediately if you experience any of these stroke symptoms.

“80 percent of strokes are preventable,” says Jean. Scheduling yearly checkups, properly taking medications, managing existing health conditions and making lifestyle changes go a long way in preventing stroke.

Sources: American Stroke Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BE FAST was developed by Intermountain Healthcare as an adaptation of the FAST model implemented by the American Stroke Association.