Stroke is the second biggest killer in Australia. One in six Australians will suffer from a stroke in their lifetime. Understanding the risk factors may help you make lifestyle changes which can prevent strokes.
A stroke is the term used to describe an interrupted flow of blood to a specific part of the brain, which causes the brain cells in the immediate area to die due to oxygen deprivation. While not all risk factors for stroke, such as age, gender and family history, can be controlled, there are things you can do to prevent strokes happening to you.
The following lifestyle choices may increase your risk of stroke:
- lack of exercise
- high blood pressure
- high blood cholesterol levels
- heavy drinking
- high fat, low fibre diet
As you get older atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) may become another important risk factor. When multiple factors are present, your overall risk will increase. You should consult your doctor who can assess your absolute risk, based on your age, gender, family history and the lifestyle factors above.
What you can do to reduce your risk?
Reduce your blood pressure
Reducing high blood pressure can significantly reduce your risk of stroke. Commonly referred to as hypertension, this is when the blood is exerting more pressure than is normal and can, over time, weaken and damage blood vessel walls, which can cause a stroke.
Hypertension may also result in a thickening of the artery walls and eventual blockage. The pressure of blood pumping through can then cause for some of the debris to come loose from the artery wall and lodge in a blood vessel in the brain, causing a stroke.
The following strategies could help you reduce your blood pressure:
- check your blood pressure regularly
- maintain a healthy weight
- exercise regularly
- eat a low fat, high-fibre diet
- reduce salt from your diet
- limit your alcohol intake
- stop smoking
- take medications where necessary
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Although easier said than done, stopping smoking can drastically reduce your risk of stroke. The chemical ingredients in cigarette smoke accelerate the process of narrowing of the arteries and thicken the blood, which makes clots more likely. Cigarette smoke forces arteries to constrict and a narrowed diameter makes it harder for the thickened blood to move through the vessels.
To stop smoking, consider:
- calling Quitline on 137 848
- visiting your doctor for information and advice
- going ‘cold turkey’ or using nicotine replacement therapy
- keeping a smoking diary so that you are aware of your smoking triggers
Managing your diabetes
Diabetes sufferers are twice as likely to suffer a stroke as someone of the same age and gender who doesn’t have the disease. This is because the high blood sugar levels contribute to the narrowing of arteries. To keep your diabetes under control, you should:
- see your doctor regularly for check-ups
- monitor your blood sugar levels regularly
- maintain a healthy weight Exercise regularly
- eat a low fat, high fibre diet
- make sure you are taking your medication correctly
Keep cholesterol levels in check
Cholesterol plays many important roles in the human body, but can become a problem if the levels in the blood are too high. Blood cholesterol contributes to the formation of a substance called atheroma, which sticks to artery walls and leads to narrowing of arteries.
To control your cholesterol levels, consider:
- regularly checking your blood cholesterol levels
- eating a high-fibre diet
- reducing your intake of saturated fats
- taking medication if recommended by your doctor
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Avoid heavy drinking
While some studies have indicated that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can actually reduce the risk of stroke, people who drink heavily are three times more likely to have a stroke, regardless of their age. To limit your alcohol intake, you should:
- drink no more than two standard drinks per day
- consult your doctor for ways to reduce your intake
- have at least two days alcohol-free every week
Eat a healthy diet
Whether you are at risk of stroke or not, eating a healthy diet is vital to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. However, to help reduce your risk of stroke, you should:
- limit your salt intake
- reduce sugary and fatty foods
- eat more vegetables, fruit and grains
- choose fresh food over processed
- see a dietitian who can help you plan a well-balanced diet.
A less active lifestyle can increase the likelihood of obesity, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol levels, which are all important risk factors for stroke. To get more active, you can:
- choose activities you enjoy
- start any new exercise regime slowly and increase as you become fitter
- warm up and cool down.
- exercise with a friend or join a specialised group
- contact a specialist for advice
- undertake moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days of the week.