Reduce stroke risks through healthy living habits

Chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and arthritis are among the most common, costly and preventable of all health problems in the United States. Approximately 795,000 Americans experience a stroke each year, approximately 185,000 of those strokes are recurrent. More women than men die each year from of a stroke, and frequency of stroke and stroke related death is higher in blacks and Hispanics than non-Hispanic whites. In 2007, 29 percent of adults in Michigan reported having high blood pressure, and 40 percent screened reported having high cholesterol, which puts them at great risk of having a stroke. Strokes accounted for 6 percent of the deaths in the state of Michigan.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is suddenly interrupted or when a blood vessel ruptures. Brain cells die as they are no longer receiving oxygen and nutrients from the blood or there is abrupt bleeding into or around the brain. The most likely type of stroke is an ischemic stroke. This occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery and keeps blood from reaching the brain. An ischemic stroke often occurs after cholesterol or plaque has built up in the arteries.

The symptoms for a stroke include sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance or coordination; or sudden severe headache with no known cause. Early symptom recognition is crucial as every second counts in seeking treatment in an acute stroke.

Women are more likely to present with non-traditional stroke symptoms such as confusion, pain or disorientation. These symptoms are not usually linked with stroke symptoms, and they should seek medical care immediately.

There are two types of risk factors for stroke: uncontrollable risk factors, and controllable risk factors. Uncontrollable risk factors include age, gender, race family history, previous stroke or transient ischemic attack. The controllable risk factors include high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, tobacco use, smoking, alcohol use, physical inactivity and obesity.

The National Stroke Association developed STARS (Steps Against Recurrent Stroke), a program that focuses on educating and empowering people in reducing risk for strokes by making lifestyle modifications and managing medical conditions that increase stroke risk. These tips include stopping smoking as this doubles the risk for another stroke. Manage high blood pressure, the most important risk factor for stroke. People who have high blood pressure have a one and a half times the risk of having a stroke compared to those who consistently have ideal blood pressure readings of 120/80. Managing high cholesterol, cholesterol or plaque build-up in the arteries can block normal blood flow to the brain causing a stroke and increasing the risk of heart disease. Atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heart beat, increases your stroke risks five times, so it is very important that you work with your doctor to control it. A healthy diet low in calories, saturated and trans fats, and cholesterol helps control your weight and healthy cholesterol levels in the blood which reduces your stroke risk. Increased physical activity also reduces stroke risk. Studies have shown that people who exercise five or more times a week are less likely to have a stroke Finally, control alcohol use. Studies say that drinking more than two drinks per day may increase the risk for stroke by 50 percent.

Stroke prevention is the best medicine. Treat high blood pressure by eating a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight and exercise to reduce blood pressure, follow your physicians’ prescribed medications, quit smoking, manage your heart disease and control diabetes.

Editor’s note: Margie Hale is Baraga County Memorial Hospital’s Chief Nursing Officer.