Regardless of your age or family history, a stroke doesn’t have to be inevitable. Here are some ways to protect yourself starting today.
Age makes us more susceptible to having a stroke, as does having a mother, father, or other close relative who has had a stroke.
You can’t reverse the years or change your family history, but there are many other stroke risk factors that you can control—provided that you’re aware of them. “Knowledge is power,” says Dr. Natalia Rost, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Acute Stroke Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “If you know that a particular risk factor is sabotaging your health and predisposing you to a higher risk of stroke, you can take steps to alleviate the effects of that risk.”
Here are seven ways to start reining in your risks today, before a stroke has the chance to strike.
- Lower blood pressure
High blood pressure is a huge factor, doubling or even quadrupling your stroke risk if it is not controlled. “High blood pressure is the biggest contributor to the risk of stroke in both men and women,” Dr. Rost says. “Monitoring blood pressure and, if it is elevated, treating it, is probably the biggest difference women can make to their vascular health.”
Your ideal goal: Maintain a blood pressure of less than 120/80. But for some, a less aggressive goal (such as 140/90) may be more appropriate.
How to achieve it:
- Reduce the salt in your diet to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day (about a half teaspoon).
- Avoid high-cholesterol foods, such as burgers, cheese, and ice cream.
- Eat 4 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day, one serving of fish two to three times a week, and several daily servings of whole grains and low-fat dairy.
- Get more exercise — at least 30 minutes of activity a day, and more, if possible.
- Quit smoking, if you smoke.
If needed, take blood pressure medicines.
- Lose weight
Obesity, as well as the complications linked to it (including high blood pressure and diabetes), raises your odds of having a stroke. If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can have a real impact on your stroke risk.
Your goal: Keep your body mass index (BMI) at 25 or less.
How to achieve it:
- Try to eat no more than 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day (depending on your activity level and your current BMI).
- Increase the amount of exercise you do with activities like walking, golfing, or playing tennis, and by making activity part of every single day.