17 surprising things that affect stroke risk

What can you do to lower your stroke risk? Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Health.com // Health.com

Stroke occurs when a blood vessel carrying blood and oxygen to the brain becomes blocked (ischemic stroke) or bursts (hemorrhagic stroke).

“Stroke is scary for many people because it seems—and often is — an unpredictable and mysterious event,” said Amy L. Doneen, medical director of the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center in Spokane, Wash. “The good news is, these events are preventable.”

Basically, a heart-healthy lifestyle cuts your stroke risk too. So get a veggie wrap instead of the pastry, take a bike ride, and quit smoking. But there are many other things you can do to lower your stroke risk. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

--By Karen Pallarito, Health.com

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Eat tomatoes

As part of a fruit-and-veggie-rich diet, think about loading up on lycopene, the antioxidant that gives tomatoes their red hue.

In a recent study, men with the greatest blood levels of lycopene were 55% less likely to have any kind of stroke—and 59% less likely to have an ischemic stroke, in particular—than men with the lowest lycopene levels.

The highest concentrations of this micronutrient are found in intensely red products such as tomato paste and tomato puree. Other good sources include vegetable juice cocktail, watermelon, pink grapefruit, and guava.

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Get checked for A-fib

People who have atrial fibrillation, or A-fib, have a fivefold higher stroke risk than those who don’t—but many people don’t know they have it.

A common heart rhythm problem (about 5% of people over 65), A-fib occurs when the upper heart chambers (the atria) don’t beat in coordination with the rest of the heart.

Symptoms can include a rapid pulse or feeling like your heart is pounding, dizziness, confusion, fainting, fatigue, or no obvious symptoms at all.

A-fib ups your clot risk, so treatment can include medication to thin the blood or slow the heart rate. Get more info from the American Stroke Association.

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Break a sweat

Vigorous exercise is a great way to ward off and reduce the effects of stroke.

One recent study found that moderate to intense exercise, like jogging or cycling, lowered the risk of silent stroke, which can lead to memory problems, while an older, international study found that people who exercised the most prior to having a stroke tended to have less severe strokes and better prospects for long-term recovery.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that includes daily exercise, not smoking, a healthy diet, a normal weight and moderate alcohol intake can reduce stroke risk by up to 80%, an older study found.

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Slash salt intake

Americans consume an average of 3,436 milligrams, or about 1-1/2 teaspoons, of salt a day, more than twice the amount that the American Heart Association recommends. In some people, salt drives up blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke.

Independent of high blood pressure, people who consume a lot of salt (more than 4,000 milligrams a day) have more than double the risk of ischemic stroke than those who consume less than 1,500 milligrams, or about 2/3 of a teaspoon, a day.

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Have an apple a day

Not all white foods are nutritional wastelands. In a Dutch study, people who consumed the most white-fleshed fruits and veggies each day (more than 171 grams, or 6 ounces) were 52% less likely to have a stroke than those who ate little white produce (78 grams, or less than 3 ounces).

Apples and pears (the most frequently consumed of the pale produce) pack fiber and quercetin, an inflammation-fighting antioxidant.

Other white foods to try: Bananas, cauliflower, chicory, cucumber, garlic, and onions.

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Drink coffee in moderation

In a recent analysis, moderate daily coffee consumption (1-3 cups) actually protected against ischemic stroke. Downing six or more cups a day had no effect on stroke risk.

“Coffee in moderation (1-2 cups) is OK,” says Wayne M. Clark, MD, director of the Oregon Stroke Center and professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “More may increase blood pressure,” a major risk factor for stroke.

On the other hand, if you know you have a brain aneurysm, lay off the joe because it could temporarily raise your blood pressure, increasing the risk that the weakened artery will burst.

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Amp up the antioxidants

The cocoa in chocolate contains flavonoids, antioxidants that fight blood vessel damage and prevent blood clots, which may lead to stroke.

A Swedish study found that men who ate the most chocolate (2.2 oz) had a 17% lower risk of stroke than men who didn’t indulge at all or very little. While the research did not explore the type of chocolate consumed, dark chocolate contains more cocoa than milk chocolate.

Chocolate’s not your thing? Green and black tea, red wine, blueberries, strawberries and garlic are also rich in flavonoids.

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Weigh surgery risks

Each year more than 300,000 Americans have hip replacement surgery to ease hip pain and restore mobility, but there is a significant downside, especially for the elderly.

A recent study found people who had hip replacement surgery faced a heightened risk of stroke, particularly in the first two weeks after the procedure. Ischemic stroke risk rose 4.7 times and hemorrhagic stroke was up 4.5-fold. The risk of stroke remains elevated for the first six to twelve weeks after surgery.

Study authors caution elderly patients to weigh the benefits of surgery against the risk of stroke.

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Lower blood pressure

Normal blood pressure is lower than 120 mmHg (systolic pressure) over 80 mmHg (diastolic pressure). Keep those numbers tightly in check to help avoid a stroke.

A study found people with even slightly elevated blood pressure—a condition known as prehypertension—have a 55% greater risk of having a future stroke. Prehypertension is defined as a systolic pressure between 120 and 139 or a diastolic pressure between 80 and 89. People at the top range of those numbers have a 79% greater risk of stroke.

To control blood pressure, exercise regularly, eat healthier, drop a few pounds, don't smoke, and take your blood pressure medication. You can’t feel high blood pressure, so you may be tempted to skip it—don’t!

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