May is National Stroke Awareness Month, which invites a closer look at the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. A stroke occurs when a blood clot obstructs blood flow in a vessel or artery or when a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to part of the brain. While nearly 75% of all strokes occur in people aged 65 years or older, they can occur at any age. Stroke risk doubles each decade after the age of 55.1
However, stroke is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Calculating your risk and working to decrease your odds is your best prevention strategy. Here are some key tactics that will not only slash your risk of stroke, but most other serious health issues as well:
Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk of atherosclerosis─fatty cholesterol build-up in your blood vessels. This obstruction narrows their diameter, promoting high blood pressure and increased risk of blockage in a vessel. This in turn cuts off the blood supply, leading to a stroke. Smoking cessation is considered one of the most effective methods of stroke prevention.
Scale back on saturated fats
Saturated fats from meat, eggs and dairy products are linked to many serious health issues including stroke. Cholesterol from these fats accumulates in blood vessels as hard sticky plaque─atherosclerosis, which, as described above, increases blood pressure and invites arterial blockage. Opt instead for lean protein and low-fat dairy.
Delete Trans fats
Trans fatty acids are formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats, which greatly extends their shelf life. These dangerous fats are incredibly prevalent, both in packaged/commercial foods and fast food, especially anything fried. Trans fats increase your risk of stroke in two ways, by raising LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and also by lowering HDL ("good") cholesterol. Embracing fresh, whole foods is your best defense.
Reduce salt intake
Consuming too much salt derails your sodium-potassium balance, resulting in increased blood pressure, which in turn hikes your risk of a stroke. Remember, it's not about the salt shaker, it's about the package. Virtually all processed foods contain sodium, often at levels that vastly exceed an entire days' allowance in a single serving. When reading labels, ensure that the sodium amount on the nutritional label does not exceed the amount of calories per serving. Aim for a 1:1 ratio of calories to sodium.
Exercise and maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight encourages high blood pressure because more stress is put on the heart and blood vessels. Exercise and a healthy, whole-foods diet is a winning strategy for safe, effective weight loss and long term maintenance. For best results, start your day with a healthy protein shake to energize you, stabilize blood sugar levels throughout the morning, and help curtail overeating later. Numerous studies confirm that a nourishing, protein-rich breakfast is key for safe, lasting weight loss.
Phytosterols are plant sterols structurally similar to cholesterol that act in the intestine to reduce cholesterol absorption. They're found naturally in foods, principally as components of vegetable oils. Many studies confirm that supplementing phytosterols reduces intestinal cholesterol absorption, including LDL ("bad") cholesterol,2,3 and therefore decreases the risk of cardiovascular events.4 In fact, plant sterols can reduce cholesterol in human subjects by up to 15%.5
So, which of these 6 keys do you embrace daily? All of them, we hope. Let's kiss stroke risk goodbye.
2 Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Dec;64(12):1481-7. Epub 2010 Sep 1
3 Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jun;77(6):1385-9
4 Metabolism. 2006 Mar;55(3):391-5
5 Journal of Nutrition 133 (6): 1815–1820. PMID 12771322