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Stroke is a cardiovascular disease. It affects the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. When blood flow to the brain is impaired, oxygen and important nutrients cannot be delivered. The result is abnormal brain function. Blood flow to the brain can be disrupted by either a blockage or rupture of an artery to the brain. There are many causes for a stroke. This is a medical emergency. Prompt treatment could mean the difference between life and death. Early treatment can also minimize damage to your brain and potential disability.


Knowing your risk factors and living healthfully are the best steps you can take to prevent a stroke. In general, a healthy lifestyle means that you:

  • Control high blood pressure (hypertension). One of the most important things you can do to reduce your stroke risk is to keep your blood pressure under control. If you've had a stroke, lowering your blood pressure can help prevent a subsequent transient ischemic attack or stroke. Exercising, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting sodium and alcohol intake are all ways to keep hypertension in check. In addition to recommendations for lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce hypertension, such as diuretics, angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers.

  • Lower your cholesterol and saturated fat intake. Eating less cholesterol and fat, especially saturated fat, may reduce the plaques in your arteries. If you can't control your cholesterol through dietary changes alone, your doctor may prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication.

  • Take B vitamins. B complex vitamins — B-6, B-12 and folic acid (folate) — can work together to reduce blood levels of homocysteine, thereby lowering your risk of a stroke.

  • Don't smoke. Quitting smoking reduces your risk of stroke. Several years after quitting, a former smoker's risk of stroke is the same as that of a nonsmoker.

  • Control diabetes. You can manage diabetes with diet, exercise, weight control and medication. Strict control of your blood sugar may reduce damage to your brain if you do have a stroke.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight contributes to other risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Weight loss of as little as 10 pounds may lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol levels.

  • Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise reduces your risk of stroke in many ways. Exercise can lower your blood pressure, increase your level of HDL cholesterol, and improve the overall health of your blood vessels and heart. It also helps you lose weight and control diabetes, and can reduce stress. Gradually work up to 30 minutes of activity — such as walking, jogging, swimming or bicycling — on most, if not all, days of the week.

  • Manage stress. Stress can cause a temporary spike in your blood pressure — a risk factor for brain hemorrhage — or long-lasting hypertension. It can also increase your blood's tendency to clot, which may elevate your risk of ischemic stroke. Simplifying your life, exercising and using relaxation techniques are all approaches that you can learn to reduce stress.

  • Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Alcohol can be both a risk factor and a preventive measure for stroke. Binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption increase your risk of high blood pressure and of ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes. However, drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol can increase your HDL cholesterol and decrease your blood's clotting tendency. Both factors can contribute to a reduced risk of ischemic stroke.

  • Don't use illicit drugs. Many street drugs, such as cocaine, are associated with a definite risk of a TIA or a stroke.

In addition, eat healthy foods. A brain-healthy diet should include:

  • Five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables, which contain nutrients such as potassium, folate and antioxidants that may protect you against stroke.

  • Foods rich in soluble fiber, such as oatmeal and beans.

  • Foods rich in calcium, a mineral found to reduce stroke risk.

  • Soy products such as tempeh, miso, tofu and soy milk, which can reduce your LDL cholesterol and raise your HDL cholesterol level.

  • Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. However, pregnant women and women who plan to become pregnant in the next several years should limit their weekly intake of cold-water fish because of the potential for mercury contamination.

You obviously can't change some risk factors for a stroke — family history, age, sex and race. But knowing you're at risk can motivate you to change your lifestyle to reduce other risks. First-time heart attacks and strokes are often fatal or disabling; therefore prevention is critical. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends:

  • Early risk factor screening. The AHA recommends that all people, beginning at age 20, undergo risk factor screening that includes recording blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and pulse at least every two years, and cholesterol and glucose testing at least every five years.

  • Risk estimation. The AHA recommends that doctors estimate each person's percentage risk of developing cardiovascular disease within the next 10 years. The estimate would be based on the risk factor screening. The AHA recommends estimation of risk every five years for people age 40 or older, or for anyone with two or more risk factors.

Stroke > 1 > 2 > 3 > 4

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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