A stroke is a serious event that can change your life forever - or end it entirely. Even if you survive a stroke with little or no loss of function, your risk of having another stroke increases greatly. Because of this, the best treatment is prevention. In many cases, a stroke can be completely prevented by following certain lifestyle changes to improve your health and overall well-being. These will generally also help to reduce your risk of heart disease, as well. For most people, the number one overall prevention strategy against stroke is to reduce, control or eliminate as many risk factors as possible.
People with multiple risk factors should speak with their doctors about being screened for carotid artery disease or other forms of peripheral arterial disease. The first level of screening is a simple physical examination in which the carotid artery is examined with a stethoscope for signs of plaque build-up in the artery. This build-up of plaque in an artery is called atherosclerosis. If the doctor hears an abnormal sound, which is called a carotid bruit, there is a higher chance of finding atherosclerosis or carotid artery disease - conditions that increase the risk of stroke. If these conditions are detected, they can be treated by a number of methods, including surgical intervention.
There are many strategies to help prevent a stroke and deal with the risk on a day to day basis. By following these strategies, you can reduce the risk of a stroke.
- Control high blood pressure. High blood pressure is also called hypertension. Blood pressure abnormalities must be continually monitored and controlled because they are a chief contributor to strokes. In fact, the Framingham Heart Disease Epidemiology Study concluded that high blood pressure is the most powerful, prevalent and treatable risk factor for stroke. It is vitally important to control and reduce blood pressure through diet modification, stress management and, if necessary, medication. Medications for high blood pressure are known as antihypertensives.
- Get regular exercise. Regular physical activity can greatly reduce the risk of stroke. Studies have found that the risk of dying from stroke declined as physical activity increased across all age groups. This strengthens the evidence that exercise and physical activity should be an important part of any strategy to prevent stroke at any age. Regular exercise, combined with proper nutrition, can also help you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. People who eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables every day are less likely to suffer from ischemic stroke than those who eat less than three servings a day. An ischemic stroke is the most common form of stroke. Eating foods rich in vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and other heart-healthy substances is also important for proper nutrition and preventing a stroke. Eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, helps increase levels of HDL, or "good", cholesterol and may also help reduce the risk of stroke. Research has noted that women who ate least five servings of fish a week had a 62 percent lower risk of stroke, compared with those who ate fish less than once a month. Researchers have also noted that people who eat large amounts of whole-grain foods have a lower risk of ischemic stroke as compared to people who ate little or no whole-grain foods.
- Reduce your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides Reducing the fats and oils, especially saturated fats, in your diet and exercising regularly can help to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, thus helping to control plaque build-up. If diet and exercise do not help, you may need to try taking cholesterol-reducing drugs, such as statins.
- Avoid birth control pills. Birth control pills may increase your risk of blood clots, thereby increasing your risk of stroke. If you are at risk, try choosing a different method of contraception.
- Quit smoking or don't start. Smoking increases the risk of having a stroke by as much as three-fold. This risk is particularly dangerous for women, especially if they are also taking birth control pills. However, people who quit smoking reduce their risk almost immediately, and the risk continues to drop as long as they don't smoke.
- Avoid excessive alcohol use. A moderate intake of alcohol has been found to help prevent stroke. This is typically defined as no more than 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor. Drinking more than this amount has been shown to double the risk of stroke.
- Refrain from drug abuse. This is especially true for cocaine and amphetamines, which have been linked to stroke occurrence.
- Learn stress management techniques. Stress can increase your blood pressure, so techniques to relieve stress, such as breathing and relaxation techniques can help to prevent a stroke.
- Treat depression. For reasons similar to those regarding stress management, it is also important to seek help for depression. If you are depressed, a mental health professional can help you to get it under control.
- Control diabetes. Diabetes can cause a number of problems, including increasing your risk of having a silent stroke. A silent stroke is a stroke that occurs without symptoms. If you are diabetic, controlling your diabetes can help to reduce these risks.
- Treat other conditions that may lead to a stroke. Irregular heart sounds, such as atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter may signify an increased risk of having a stroke. Treating these conditions can help reduce this risk. Sleep apnea is another condition that requires treatment. Sleep apnea is a condition that occurs when you temporarily stop breathing during sleep.
- Consider a daily aspirin. One aspirin daily or a prescription anticoagulant medication can reduce your risk of having a stroke by preventing the formation of a blood clot. However, daily aspirin or anticoagulant therapy is not right for all people. Talk to your doctor about the benefits of these medications and whether this therapy is right for you.
Reviewed by Andrew Biondo, D.O.