4 Small Changes To Help You Prevent a Stroke, According to Science
Your brain and your heart are the biggest players when it comes to a stroke—which happens when oxygen and nutrients can't get to the brain, often because a clot blocks the blood vessels going to your head. Two major factors that can (independently) lead to a stroke are high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Hypertension damages blood vessels and cholesterol can cause the buildup of fatty deposits that narrow arteries, says cardiologist and EatingWell advisor Philip Ades, M.D. Scary, yes, but healthy habits, like these four, can go a long way toward keeping arteries strong and resilient.
Illustrations by Luci Gutiérrez
1. Nosh on Some Walnuts
Eating a 1-ounce serving of this nutty snack at least once a week was associated with a 17% lower risk of stroke, according to research at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Walnuts are a top source of heart-healthy alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based type of omega-3, that has been linked to healthy cholesterol and triglycerides, improved blood vessel function and reduced inflammation (important because high levels of inflammation can damage arteries). All together, this helps prevent plaque buildup, blood clots and vascular weakening that can contribute to a stroke.
2. Cut Down on Stress
Working long hours—more than 10 hours a day for 50 days out of the year—was associated with 29% greater odds of having a stroke, French researchers found. The reason? Constant on-the-job demands, and the chronic stress that comes with them, appear to negatively impact vascular function, possibly by increasing inflammation in the body. If you can shift things around to improve your work-life balance, great. Otherwise, make sure you're prioritizing other prevention strategies. One to consider: yoga. Not only is it a proven stress-buster, the mind-body activity may also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
3. Get a Move On
When you walk, are you a tortoise or a hare? Compared to slow strollers (a pace of 1 mile per hour) those who moved at a faster clip (3.5 mph) had a 44% reduced likelihood of a stroke, a recent review in the Journal of Sport and Health Science concluded. Walking speed is an indicator of your overall aerobic fitness and blood vessel function. If you're a slow walker, it may be time to do more cardio. During workouts—no matter your exercise of choice—use the talk test to make sure you're pushing yourself enough. The exercise should feel challenging to the point where you can say only short sentences. Once you can do this for 30 minutes straight, boost the activity length and frequency.
4. Plenty of Potassium
Curbing sodium has been a top recommendation for controlling hypertension for decades. But consider increasing potassium at the same time. Getting nearly twice as much sodium as potassium is associated with a 22% greater stroke risk, according to research in the Journal Clinical Nutrition, while consuming more potassium lowers this risk. Sodium makes your body hold on to water, which raises blood pressure. "Potassium helps to regulate this fluid retention," says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., from the American Heart Association. Limit sodium to 2,300 mg/day (1,500 if you have hypertension) and aim to get 4,700 mg potassium—a doable target if your diet is rich in fruits and veg.
This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine May 2020.