Although a stroke can happen to anyone, there are certain factors that may increase your chances of having one. It’s one of the nation’s leading causes of death and disability, but an estimated 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
UR Medicine Neurologist Dr. Curtis Benesch says you can improve your odds—and your overall health—by understanding and addressing your lifestyle and medical risk factors for stroke.
- Watch what you eat. A healthy diet can reduce risk for stroke and chronic diseases and help you maintain a healthy weight. Eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and lower your intake of salt, fats, and added sugars. Excess weight can strain your circulatory system. It also makes you more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes—all of which are stroke risks.
- Know your numbers. High blood pressure (hypertension) is the most important modifiable risk factor for stroke, if left untreated. Have your blood pressure checked regularly and talk to your doctor if it is high. The same goes for high cholesterol levels, which can result in clogged arteries and cause stroke. Consult your doctor if your total cholesterol level is more than 200.
- Get physical. Studies have shown that people who exercise five or more times a week have a reduced stroke risk. If you’re new to exercise, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor before you get started.
- Keep the beat. An irregular heartbeat—a condition known as atrial fibrillation or Afib—can cause blood to pool in the heart and may lead to clots that increase stroke risk by 500 percent. Your doctor can discuss how to diagnose and treat Afib if it’s found.
- Have healthy habits. Stop smoking and curb the cocktails. Smoking damages blood vessels, raises blood pressure, accelerates artery clogging, and doubles the risk of stroke. Excessive alcohol can increase your blood pressure and has also been linked to stroke. If you drink alcohol, aim for moderation—no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
- Act FAST. Know the signs and symptoms of stroke and seek help quickly. The FAST acronym is a good tool to remember, but any sudden change in someone’s neurologic function (strength, sensation, vision, speech, balance, etc.) could be concerning for a potential stroke:
- Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
- Arm: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
- Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.
Curtis G. Benesch, M.D., is a professor of neurology and board-certified vascular neurologist at URMC, and medical director of UR Medicine's Comprehensive Stroke Center.