Stroke is the fifth highest cause of death in the United States, so it’s important to understand your risk factors ― both manageable and non-manageable. Around 80% of strokes are preventable and you can reverse many of the risks.
Take action now to help reduce your risk of having a stroke. Let’s look at some simple things you can do to improve your overall health.
Tip #1: Get Your Numbers
Stroke risk is, in part, a numbers game. Knowing where you are now and setting goals for improvement is a great step toward better health. Make an appointment with your healthcare provider to establish a baseline.
- 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. High blood pressure is the #1 most treatable risk factor related to stroke.
- 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 reverse Type 2 diabetes 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: Check for Atrial Fibrillation
Some people feel their hearts flutter, but others have no idea they have atrial fibrillation (Afib), a common heart rhythm disorder, until it causes a stroke. The stroke happens because Afib 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 can travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
Testing for Afib 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 Afib, there are several treatments available to correct the problem.
Tip #3: Take Your Medicine
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. Ask your provider if you have any questions about any of your medications or their side effects.
Tip #4: Use a Pedometer or Fitness Tracker
A simple pedometer costs just a few dollars and many mobile phone apps also track activity while your phone is simply in your pocket. Decide how you’d like to track your steps and then pay attention to your daily readings. You don’t have to commit to anything beyond 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.
Tip #5: Track What You Eat and Drink for a Week
Write down what you’re eating and drinking. Or put the details in a note or nutrition app on your mobile 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. Look at your notes and find places you can make healthy changes.
Tip #6: Stop Smoking and Drink Less Alcohol
We all know that drinking too much and smoking shorten your life. Your doctor can help you quit smoking and work with you to reduce your alcohol intake. If you need more support, there are resources available both through Sutter and in the community.
Some of the simplest actions can be the hardest to do. But you can do it!