Maybe you’re wondering if you’re at risk of having a stroke. The fact is, nearly anyone can have a stroke — from infants to the elderly. It’s true that if you’re under age 60 the likelihood that you’ll have a stroke this year is small. After age 60, the numbers start to climb. Why? Because it’s what you do and don’t do today that puts your name on the waiting list for a stroke.
The Most Surprising Fact About Stroke
There are a lot of startling facts about strokes. Each year, more than 800,000 Americans have strokes. Strokes are the world’s leading cause of disability and second most common cause of death.
But there's one stroke statistic that's downright shocking: More than 90% of strokes are preventable.
Reversing Stroke Risk: What Can You Do?
A great deal. You can reverse many of the top risks, including:
- High Blood Pressure – Hypertension is the strongest and most important treatable stroke risk factor.
- Smoking — People who smoke are two to four times more likely to have a stroke.
- Diabetes — Having diabetes increases your risk of stroke.
- Atrial Fibrillation — This common heart rhythm disorder increases stroke risk by five to seven times.
- High cholesterol — With too much bad cholesterol (LDL) compared to good cholesterol (HDL) – Cholesterol turns to plaque, which clogs arteries and sets the stage for strokes caused by blood clots.
- Heavy drinking — More than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women significantly increases stroke risk.
Okay. No surprises there. You’ve heard these risk factors before, and perhaps the last thing you want to hear is that you need to stop smoking, drink less, exercise, lose weight and eat better. Someone in your life has probably suggested those ideas before. So forget the big picture for a minute. Let’s look at some simple things you can do today.
Tip #1 Get Your Numbers.
Stroke is an insidious plot set into motion by silent collaborators that work together and against you. Fortunately, they’re easy to spot. Make an appointment with your healthcare provider and learn their identifying numbers:
High blood pressure — There are two blood pressure numbers. The top number, systolic pressure, measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. The bottom number, diastolic pressure, measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart rests between beats. Ideally, you want the numbers to be 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic). Anything above that increases your risk.
Diabetes — A fasting blood glucose (blood sugar) test tells you if you have diabetes or its precursor, prediabetes. The CDC estimates that almost half of American adults have one or the other, and both increase your chances of a stroke. On the test, you want a blood sugar number lower than 100. If you have diabetes or prediabetes you’re better off knowing. There are ways you can keep this threat subdued — and your doctor will be happy to help.
Cholesterol — A cholesterol test, also called a lipoprotein analysis, lets you know your total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglyceride (a kind of fat) levels. It gives you the ratio of good to bad cholesterol. You want less than 200 total cholesterol, at least 3.5 times more good cholesterol than bad, and triglycerides under 150. Cholesterol is like golf; lower numbers are better for everything except HDL. Keeping your LDL (bad) cholesterol at a level you doctor recommends should be part of routine prevention.
Tip #2 Ask Your Doctor to Check for Atrial Fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation sometimes joins the gang of silent killers. Some people feel their hearts flutter, but others have no idea they have this common heart rhythm disorder until it causes a stroke. The stroke happens because A-fib causes blood flow to slow down in one part of the heart, and sluggish blood tends to form clots. When a clot leaves the heart, it travels to the brain and causes a stroke.
Testing for A-fib is easy and painless. You doctor will ask you about your family history of heart rhythm problems, listen to your heart, and have you undergo an electrocardiogram. During an EKG (or ECG), tiny electrode stickers placed on your body detect and record your heart electrical signals. If tests reveal that you have A-fib, there are several treatments available to correct the problem.
Tip #3 Take Your Medicine.
Listen to your doctor. And If your doctor prescribes medication to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol, take it. Don't stop taking your medication, even if you don't have symptoms, unless your doctor says it's OK.
Tip #4 Buy and Wear a Pedometer or Fitness Tracker.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything yet, just go buy one. It doesn’t have to be fancy. A simple pedometer costs just a few dollars. Many cell phone apps also track activity, so you might just carry your phone in your pocket. Then pay attention to your daily readings. You don’t have to commit to anything beyond simply noticing how much — or how little — you move. Watch your numbers for 10 days and then set a goal of 1,000 steps more than usual for a week. From there, gradually increase your goal amount every couple of weeks. Studies suggest that walking 10,000 steps a day prevents weight gain, reduces blood sugar, improves the ratio of good-to-bad cholesterol and lowers blood pressure. There aren’t many small investments that deliver such impressive returns.
Tip #5 Write Down Everything You Eat and Drink for a Week.
Carry a little notepad and write down what you are eating and drinking. Or put it in a note app on your cell phone, if that’s easier. Keeping a food journal can be very educational. Most people don't have any idea how much they consume each day.
Tip #6 Stop Doing the Two Things you Know Will Kill You.
You knew this was coming. There’s no way around the fact that drinking too much and smoking shorten your life. Whether it’s a stroke, heart attack, cancer, liver failure, COPD, or some other illness, nothing good ever comes from cigarettes or more than just a little alcohol.
Cutting back on alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are seldom easy. But the title of this article is “Six Simple Ways to Reduce Your Stroke Risk.” Some of the simplest actions can be the hardest to do.
Step #7 BEFAST to Spot a Stroke
With stroke, you need to BE FAST. Time is critical for a stroke victim. Each minute, two million brain cells die. Learn the signs of stroke, and use Sutter’s BE FAST materials to spread awareness.
One Last Tip
Starting with a small step — making a doctor’s appointment, getting tested for A-fib, taking your medicines, buying a fitness tracker or keeping a food diary — gets things moving in the right direction. Every step you take along that path helps to put more distance between you and a stroke.