Strokes are the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States, and they're not just a problem for the elderly; unlike other forms of cardiovascular disease, strokes are increasing among younger people. In fact, from 2010 to 2014, the rate of stroke increased by 147 percent in people ages 35-39, compared to rates from 1995-1999. And while strokes aren't always fatal, they can have life-changing effects, including problems with balance, communication, and cognition, or changes to vision, emotions, and behavior.
Like other forms of cardiovascular disease, strokes are largely preventable. Here's how to protect yourself:
1. Kick the salt
A high-sodium diet increases blood pressure, one of the biggest risk factors for stroke. Over time, excessive pressure can damage arteries in the brain, making them more susceptible to bursting or clogs. According to the World Health Organization, high blood pressure can more than double your chances of having a stroke. Additionally, studies show that lowering sodium intake can reduce stroke risk by 24 percent. So kick your salt habit; shoot for less than 2,300 mg per day with a few simple tips:
- Avoid processed foods. Chips, crackers, processed meats, and fast foods are the single highest source of sodium in most people's diets, and a cheeseburger and fries at most drive-through restaurants will add 1,000 mg of sodium or more to your daily intake.
- Watch out for hidden sources of salt. Pasta sauce, salad dressings, canned soups, barbecue sauce, and other condiments may have as much as 1,000 mg of sodium per serving-almost half of the recommended upper limit.
- Even if you don't eat processed foods, a pinch here and a dash there add up. Toss your salt shaker, and look for salt-free seasoning substitutes made with herbs, garlic powder, and spices to add flavor at the table.
- Stock up on seasonings for cooking that add flavor without sodium. Good choices include onion powder, red chili flakes, garlic granules, fresh ginger root, dried rosemary, and sage. Or season with curry powder. It's high in turmeric, a spice that may protect the brain against some of the effects of stroke. Taking turmeric and garlic, particularly Aged Garlic Extract, in supplement form can help promote both cardiovascular and brain health.
2. Get moving
Commit to daily exercise, even if it's just a 30-minute walk (or two 15-minute walks). A study of 40,000 women found that walking for at least 3 hours a week reduced their risk of stroke by 30 percent. The reason: when you exercise, you strengthen the heart muscle, making it more efficient at pumping blood, with less pressure. Exercise also reduces weight and lowers cholesterol, other risk factors of stroke.
What's the best way to move? Brisk walking is convenient and universally accessible, and you can vary the intensity and speed. Other good choices: hiking, swimming, dancing, and bicycling.
Did You Know?
Walking 30 minutes a day, six times per week, can lower a woman's stroke risk by 30 percent.
3. Love your salads
An analysis of data from more than 250,000 participants showed that eating more antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables is linked with reduced risk of stroke. The greatest benefits occur at five servings or more per day-easy to do with a hefty salad. Focus on nutrient-dense selections, such as baby spinach, broccoli, arugula, carrots, blueberries, beets, and pears.
And how you dress your salad makes a difference. The best choice is olive oil, which protects against all kinds of cardiovascular disease, including stroke. In one study, people over the age of 65 who regularly use olive oil reduced stroke risk by 41 percent. Omega-3 fats, found in walnuts, fatty fish, and flax seeds, also lower inflammation and reduce the risk of stroke. And avoid saturated animal fat and trans fats; both are linked with an increased risk of stroke.
4. Calm down
If you're an aggressive, short-tempered sort, you're a candidate for stroke, as well as heart attack and other cardiovascular disease. In one study, stressed-out, short-tempered people were twice as likely to suffer a stroke-increasing the risk as much as smoking. Additionally, people with antagonistic personality traits may have increased thickening of arteries in the neck, a significant risk factor for stroke. And one study found that a more active amygdala, the part of the brain that's activated during stress, is linked with a higher risk of stroke.
So chill out. Meditation, tai chi, and yoga calm the nervous system and soothe stress. Biofeedback can help you learn what triggers you, and how to control it. Even a walk in a garden has been shown to lower levels of psychological stress. Or try a calming supplement such as passionflower, valerian, L-theanine, or magnesium. And phosphatidylserine (PS) has been shown to measurably reduce stress.
5. Eat more beans
They're one of the best sources of potassium, linked with reduced risk of stroke. In one study, people who had low dietary intake of potassium experienced a 28 percent higher risk of stroke. In another study, the risk of stroke decreased by 11 percent for every 1,000 mg per day increase in potassium intake-about the amount in a cup of beans. As a bonus, beans are also loaded with fiber, which is significantly associated with lower risk of stroke. Other potassium-rich foods include tomato sauce, beets, Swiss chard, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados, yogurt, dried apricots, spinach, and bananas.
To get more potassium in your diet, start your day with a smoothie made of banana, avocado, spinach, and yogurt; whip up a white bean soup with tomatoes, potatoes, and Swiss chard; or snack on a baked sweet potato or a few dried apricots.
6. Watch your sugar
High sugar intake is linked with increased risk of stroke and other diseases. In one study, people who got 17-21 percent of their daily calories from added sugar had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, including stroke. And the risk more than doubled for people who ate 21 percent or more of their calories from sugar. High-fructose sweeteners, including agave syrup, have also been linked with high blood pressure. The Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends that no more than 10 percent of total calories per day come from added sugars, with 5 percent being a better target. Say goodbye to sugar with these simple tips:
- Purge your pantry. Get rid of sugary snacks, and stock your fridge with berries, oranges, and other fruit.
- Swap soda for seltzer. Combine fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, pomegranate juice, or red grape juice with sparkling water for a stroke-preventive substitute.
- Use stevia or xylitol. Try stevia-sweetened soft drinks, or use xylitol or stevia to sweeten beverages, yogurt, or cereal.
7. Be careful with calcium
We've been taking calcium supplements for years, but recent research suggests they may raise the risk of heart attack and stroke by encouraging plaque buildup in arteries. The same isn't true for dietary calcium, which appears be protective. In one study, researchers found that the risks of calcium supplements outweighed the benefits for bone health. The reason: many forms of supplemental calcium don't make it to the bones, instead accumulating in soft tissues and contributing to plaques that increase stroke risk. Which is not to say that calcium isn't important, but it should be taken properly.
To protect both your heart and bones, avoid calcium supplements made from oyster shell, bone meal, or dolomite, and choose bioavailable forms such as calcium citrate or citrate-malate. Always take calcium with its complementary nutrients—magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K2—to be sure it's properly utilized. And get as much of your calcium as possible from dietary sources such as yogurt, milk, kale, broccoli, and sesame seeds.
Get as much of your calcium as possible from dietary sources such as yogurt, milk, kale, broccoli, and sesame seeds. Product Picks