A stroke can happen to anyone — someone in their 20s, someone in their 70s and even in people who are active and healthy. In fact, approximately one in five strokes occurs in people younger than 55. Today, stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability for adults in the U.S. There are some things, however, you can do to protect yourself against stroke. Seconds count when responding to a stroke since brain cells die rapidly without blood flow. That's why it's important to know the facts about what you can do to prevent a stroke and what to do if a stroke occurs.

Some Strokes Are Preventable Through Diet.

We know that about 80 percent of strokes are preventable. While some risk factors, including family history, cannot be controlled, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of having a stroke. Research shows that some foods are more brain-healthy, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish. Avoiding foods high in cholesterol and saturated fat can also reduce your risk by reducing the fatty deposits, or plaques, in your arteries. Not maintaining a good weight and a healthy diet are factors that contribute to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, putting you at a higher risk for having a stroke. Generally, maintaining a blood pressure of less than 120/80 is good, though some people at higher risk might require different numbers, so talk with your primary care doctor about your goals.

Physical Activity Can Reduce Your Stroke Risk.

In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, get regular exercise. Not only does it lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels, it also decreases stress and helps control diabetes. By exercising regularly, even starting with 30 to 45 minutes a day, you increase your level of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol that could carry “bad” cholesterol away from the arteries, thus protecting against heart attack and stroke. Ultimately, aiming for a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less will have long-term benefits for you brain’s health.

Drinking Alcohol in Moderation and Not Smoking Reduces Your Stroke Risk.

While drinking in moderation, or one serving of alcohol per day, is fine for your health, drinking more puts you at increased risk for stroke. This is because alcohol can be linked to increased blood pressure and blood clotting, ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke. Stopping smoking is, perhaps, one of the most powerful ways to prevent stroke. We know smoking accelerates clot formation which could lead to stroke. Smoking increases the amount of plaque buildup in the arteries and also thickens blood, leading to a dangerous combination.

Know Your Other Risk Factors and Share Them with Your Doctor.

Letting your primary care doctor know about conditions you have, like diabetes and atrial fibrillation, and seeking treatment will reduce your risk of stroke. Atrial fibrillation, a form of irregular heartbeat causing clotting in the heart, is a serious risk because the clots can travel to the brain if left untreated. Diabetes can cause blood vessel damage, leading to a higher risk of clotting. Lastly, letting your doctor know about other risk factors, like family history of stroke, can help your doctor better understand how to advise and treat you.

Know What To Do if a Stroke Occurs.

As we say, “time is brain.” Knowing what to do if you or someone you are with is having a stroke can save precious seconds. That’s why it’s important to call 911 first and not drive yourself or the person having a stroke to the hospital. Learn why calling 911 and having an ambulance bring you to the hospital is critical for treatment and recovery.

Knowing the signs of a stroke and seeking help could save your life. We tell people to remember the acronym BE FAST:

  • Balance: Sudden loss of coordination or balance.

  • Eyes: Sudden change in vision.

  • Face: Weakness on one side or facial droop.

  • Arm or leg: Weakness or numbness.

  • Speech difficulty: Slurred or trouble understanding speech.

  • Terrible headache: Sudden onset.

We remind people that they know their bodies, so do not ignore the symptoms and seek immediate medical attention.

The Froedtert Acute Stroke Team is ready 24 hours a day to respond to the acute needs of stroke patients.

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About the Author

Marc A. Lazzaro, MD, FAHA is a specialist in vascular neurology and endovascular surgical neuroradiology who sees patients at Froedtert Hospital. He and his team use minimally invasive techniques to treat blood vessel disorders of the brain and spine. The Froedtert & MCW team is one of only 101 Advanced Comprehensive Stroke Centers in the United States certified by The Joint Commission.