Each year, more than 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke, and more than 130,000 of those cases are fatal. But most of these deaths are preventable, says William H. Humphries III, MD, cerebral vascular neurosurgeon at MU Health Care’s award-winning Missouri Stroke Center.
“I tell my patients that the biggest determinant in your probability of developing a stroke is your lifestyle,” Dr. Humphries said.
Here are three tips to significantly reduce your risk of stroke.
Change your diet.
Following a healthy diet and moderate use of alcohol are key to reducing your risk of stroke.
“You want to limit your intake of fried foods and fatty foods,” Humphries said.
These foods tend to be high in LDL cholesterol, which can contribute to artery blockages. They also raise your blood triglyceride levels (the amount of fat in your blood). “If you’re going to eat fatty foods, the ones that are high in omega-3 fatty acids would be preferable,” explains Humphries.
Omega-3s can actually lower your blood triglycerides and reduce your risk of stroke and heart disease. These “good fats” are found in fish, nuts and seeds. Swapping out fried and processed fatty foods with those high in omega-3s will satisfy cravings while protecting you from stroke. Humphries also recommends including a large amount of green, leafy vegetables in your diet, plus whole grains.
Another important factor in reducing your risk of stroke is to limit your alcohol intake. Heavy drinking makes blood clots more likely to form, but you don’t have to cut out alcohol completely to reduce your stroke risk.
“Moderation is better,” Humphries said. “I'm not saying you totally have to abstain from having a glass of wine from time to time, but you shouldn't be drinking large quantities of alcohol every day.”
The American Heart Association recommends limiting your alcohol consumption to one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of many medical problems, including stroke.
“You should be up and moving around, getting your heart rate up, for at least 30 minutes at a time,” Humphries said. “I recommend exercising daily. If that isn't possible, try to exercise at least three to five times per week.”
Finding time to exercise may seem difficult if you have a desk job, but there are plenty of ways to get yourself moving throughout the day. Consider purchasing an under-desk exercise bike to get your heart rate up while answering emails. Take a brisk walk during your lunch break. Ride your bike to work, or join a gym near your home or office.
Cut out nicotine.
What’s the most important thing you can do to prevent stroke? Break your nicotine habit if you have one.
It’s not just smoking cigarettes that puts you at risk, according to Humphries.
“Nicotine, in and of itself, is harmful to blood vessels — particularly the ones in the neck that go up into the brain,” he said. “I have patients come in and tell me that they've quit smoking, but they still chew tobacco, or they use vapor or nicotine gum. That's good in the grand scheme of things because it’s getting them off the cigarette smoke, but nicotine can still cause health problems.”
Humphries said the ultimate goal should be to quit nicotine completely, not just to stop smoking.