While there are risk factors for stroke you can't change (age, race, family history), there are many more that you can. Here are six ways to get started now.
Keep your blood pressure low. High blood pressure (a reading of 140/90 mmHg or higher) increases your stroke risk by four to six times. If you have high blood pressure, take steps to lower it. Controlling blood pressure is one of the most important things you can do.
A total cholesterol level of more than 200 mg/dL puts you at higher risk for stroke. "About half of all strokes are caused by plaque in the carotid arteries," says Richard Lee, M.D., surgical director of the Center for Atrial Fibrillation at Northwestern School of Medicine in Chicago. Those are the arteries that supply the brain with blood. Elevated cholesterol can lead to plaque formation. If diet and exercise don't bring your numbers down, talk to your doctor about prescription cholesterol-lowering drugs, called statins.
Atrial fibrillation, or a-fib, as doctors call it, is a condition where one of the top chambers beats out of sync with the rest of the heart. This allows blood to pool, which can lead to a clot that travels to the brain. A-fib accounts for about 20 percent of strokes. Few doctors even realize it's that high, Lee says.
Here's a quick test to tell if you have an irregular pulse, which can be a sign of atrial fibrillation: Press two fingertips on the opposite wrist and find your pulse. Don't worry about counting beats; just feel for an even, steady drumbeat. It helps to tap your foot along with each beat.
An irregular beat feels like an extra or missed beat. If you discover this, or if you ever feel like your heart races or flutters for no reason, see a doctor. The effects of a-fib can be controlled with medication or surgery.
Smoking doubles stroke risk. If you haven't tried quitting in a while, see your doctor. There are new tools to help you quit. You can also check out SmokeFree.gov, a smoking cessation resource sponsored by the federal government.
Extra baggage overworks your entire circulatory system and raises stroke risk. More younger women are having strokes, and rising obesity rates likely are to blame.
"Abdominal obesity is a known predictor of stroke in women and may be a key factor in the midlife stroke surge in women," says Amytis Towfighi, M.D., of the neurology department of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
If you need to lose weight, aim to drop only 1 pound a week while exercising three times a week for 30 minutes at a time (brisk walking works great).
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes are major risk factors for stroke. And strokes seem to cause more damage if they strike when your blood glucose levels are high. If you have diabetes, make sure you control your blood glucose levels as closely as possible.