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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.

3. Get tested for and treat hyperhomocysteinemia.

Hyperhomocysteinemia is a condition that is hard to pronounce and potentially devastating to the vascular system but often easy to treat. Hyperhomocysteinemia is a condition of chronically elevated homocysteine, a byproduct of the body's production of the nervous system regulator s-adenosyl methionine, also known as sam-E. 

When there are deficiencies of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, or folic acid, homocysteine can accumulate in the bloodstream. It acts as an inflammatory agent that in effect narrows blood vessels so that they are more likely to catch clots. Simply taking a B vitamin supplement sometimes is enough to reduce homocysteine levels to safe levels, although only blood testing can tell for sure. B vitamin supplements are available in almost all countries and are extremely inexpensive. Ask your doctor to test your homocysteine levels at your next checkup if they are not being tested all

4. If you smoke, quit. If you drink, avoid binge drinking. If you are a couch potato, get up and get at least a little exercise.

Some smokers have strokes, and some do not, but smoking significantly increases the risk of stroke for both men and women. Risk of stroke falls as soon as smokers quit. Men who take more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day and women who consume more than 1 alcoholic beverage per day are at increased risk of stroke. Risk of stroke falls when alcohol consumption is controlled for several months or more. 

If you aren't getting any physical activity at all, don't try to run a marathon. But even modest, mild physical activity for 5 to 10 minutes at a time can improve circulation in ways that reduce pooling of blood and risk of stroke.

5. Be especially careful to keep your blood pressure under control if you fall into one of the high-risk groups for stroke.

In the United States, Blacks are 49% more likely to suffer stroke, and significantly more likely to suffer a fatal stroke, than the general population. Hispanics are less likely to suffer fatal strokes, but they have more lacunar or "mild" strokes than non-Hispanic whites at an earlier age. Strokes can occur at any age, about 1/3 of all strokes occurring in people who have not yet reached the age of 65. And in the United States, 26% of all strokes are fatal. If you are Black, it is especially important to control blood pressure. If you are Hispanic, it is especially important to recognize the symptoms of stroke to get timely treatment.

The symptoms of stroke can be remembered by the acronym FAST:

F - Watch for an uneven smile or facial numbness.

A - Arms and legs can become numb or paralyzed.

S - Speech may become slurred or disappear.

T - Time--you don't have a lot of it!

Timely treatment of stroke in the emergency room can prevent permanent damage to the brain, but it is critical to seek treatment immediately when stroke symptoms appear.

  • 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.
  • Photo courtesy of Heather Harvey by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/smilygrl/4732229662/
  • Photo courtesy of University of Michigan MSIS by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/umich-msis/6550246371

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