Despite the drastic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our physical, emotional and social well-being, World Stroke Day should continue to serve as a reminder of how important it is that we take care of ourselves to prevent future strokes.
As difficult as it may seem to stay calm and focus on our personal well-being despite the multiple stresses as a result of the pandemic, we must continue to work on stroke prevention as a community. During this pandemic, those with chronic conditions have had challenges with limited access to outpatient care. With closures of gyms, plus shelter-in-place orders around the world, it has understandably been difficult to maintain good physical and emotional health. World Stroke Day can be an opportunity for us to focus on our well-being.
We estimate that 80% of all strokes are preventable. The most important modifiable risk factors (e.g., factors that one can control) are:
— Lack of exercise.
— Alcohol use.
— High blood pressure.
— High blood cholesterol.
— High blood sugars (diabetes).
— Stress (to some degree).
— Abnormal heart rhythm.
Outlined below are risk factors we can help control and decrease our risk of stroke:
Hypertension, aka high blood pressure:
According to the American Heart Association, a normal blood pressure is defined as less than 120/80mmHg. It is very important to know your numbers. Having elevated blood pressure can increase your risk of heart disease and is one of the strongest risk factors for stroke. Eating healthy meals that are low in salt — less than 2,300 mg per day — can greatly help control blood pressure. Keeping one’s weight or body mass index in a healthy range, taking medications as prescribed and increasing physical activity can also aid in lowering blood pressure.
Diabetes makes it difficult for the body to process and store sugar for energy, leading to high sugar levels in the bloodstream. Unfortunately, diabetes rates are increasing, with younger and younger people being diagnosed with this condition. Being overweight, having a poor diet and lack of exercise all contribute to developing this condition. Diabetes can damage blood vessels and other organs, causing serious health problems. Diet and exercise, in addition to adhering to prescribed diabetes medications, helps control diabetes and ultimately reduce stroke risk.
Obesity and Lack of Activity
According to the American Heart Association, approximately 70% of American adults are overweight. This leads to a high prevalence of health problems including diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. We recommend all adults participate in 60 minutes or more of good physical activity on most days of the week.
Smoking is a significant risk factor for stroke. Smoking damages cells and artery walls; causes cholesterol plaque build-up on blood vessel walls, making blood clots more likely to form; raises blood pressure; and worsens cholesterol numbers. Quitting smoking reduces stroke risk dramatically.
Studies have shown that stress can play a role in increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Stress may also increase the risk of high blood pressure, poor blood sugar control, overeating and excess weight gain, all of which in turn can further increase stroke risk. Therefore, reducing your overall stress level on a daily basis may help reduce stroke risk in the long run. This is especially important during the pandemic, as stress levels are already very high across the globe.
Drinking more alcohol than the recommended daily amount can predispose to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, stroke, dementia, breast cancer, suicide and accidents. Excessive drinking and binge drinking can cause stroke, cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm) or cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle). Those with prolonged exposure to alcohol are at higher risk of developing brain atrophy (shrinkage), premature dementia and peripheral nerve damage in the form of neuropathy.
Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm that can cause blood clots to form in the heart. If this clot then travels to the brain and blocks an artery, a stroke can occur. People can experience irregular heartbeat and heart palpitations, though many may not be aware that they are in this heart rhythm. Wearable devices, such as smart watches, can monitor heart rhythm and identify irregular heartbeat. It’s important to identify, as strokes from atrial fibrillation can be prevented by the daily use of a blood thinner prescribed by your doctor.
World Stroke Day is a great opportunity for us to remind ourselves and our loved ones to tend to our well-being by focusing on a healthy lifestyle and controlling health conditions that can lead to serious complications such as stroke. Good health is a wonderful gift and should be enjoyed by all of us.
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