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Every month or two, scientists announce a new risk factor for stroke. Factors ranging from family financial stress during childhood to exposure to overexcitement during religious pilgrimages raise stroke risk. Here are five ways to lower it.

Epidemiological research is constantly uncovering new risk factors for stroke. People who suffer depression in midlife are at greater risk of stroke. People who are exposed to particulate air pollution, such as smoke and soot, are at greater risk of soot. People who had nosebleeds as teenagers, people who have higher blood pressure in their arms than in their legs, and people on religious pilgrimages (especially women over the age of 40 making their first hajj) are at greater risk of stroke. Even early childhood social status, whether your father worked at a blue collar job (endowing you with a higher risk) or a white collar job (leaving you with a lower risk) 65 years ago has been linked to risk of stroke.

Research epidemiology, essentially an analysis of existing medical records, is useful for telling who is at greater risk for stroke, but clinical studies tell us what we can do to lower our risk of stroke if we are in one of the many groups known to be at higher risk. Here are five key concerns for lowering the risk of stroke.

1. Nutrition is key to lowering stroke risk.

Doctors and nutritionists repeat the mantra "low fat, low fat, low fat" when warning us of heart attack risk. But preventing stroke sometimes requires more fat, not less.

Stroke occurs when arteries are blocked by blood clots or fat embolisms. Essentially, clots of blood or blobs of fat get "stuck" in the artery.

One way to lower the risk of arterial blockage is to ensure the flexibility of the cells lining the arteries. And to make the chemicals that keep cells flexible, cells need an omega-9 fatty acid called oleic acid.

Oleic acid, as its name suggests, is abundant in olive oil. It's also found in safflower oil, but if you object to GMO foods, you probably want to avoid safflower oil. Oleic acid lowers blood pressure, blood sugars, and triglycerides, and it also displaces some of the omega-6 essential fatty acids that cause inflammation without displacing the omega-3 essential fatty acids that regulate it.

Getting the right kind of fat isn't enough. Your body has to make enzymes to use it. These enzymes, in turn, require the B vitamins, especially B2, B3, and B6, vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc. It is not necessary and actually is detrimental to overdose any of these nutrients, especially zinc (which displaces copper), but it is also necessary to avoid deficiencies in these nutrients for the body to use healthy fats.

2. Air filtration may lower stroke risk.

One of the surprising findings of epidemiological research is that exposure particulate air pollution, such as dust, soot, and smoke, increases the lifetime risk of stroke. Cooking over open fires indoors is especially dangerous, but ash from forest fires and volcanoes is equally problematic. If you have other risk factors for stroke, that is, if you smoke, or you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, or you have a personal history or family history of smoke, you should stay indoors when the air is smoky, or even better, use an air filtration system.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Azarpazhooh MR, Shahripour RB, Kapral MK, Mokhber N, Shoeibi A, Farzadfard MT, Rafati MR, Thrift AG, Morovatdar N, Sajedi SA, Azarpazhooh A. Incidence of first ever stroke during Hajj ceremony. BMC Neurol. 2013 Dec 5.13:193. doi: 10.1186/1471-2377-13-193. PMID: 24308305.
  • Murray AD, McNeil CJ, Salarirad S, Whalley LJ, Staff RT. Early life socioeconomic circumstance and late life brain hyperintensities - a population based cohort study. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 18. 9(2):e88969. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088969. eCollection 2014.
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