You can protect yourself by cutting down your risk factors. An isolated risk factor is unlikely to cause trouble, but an accumulative effect means that the more you have, the greater the risk. The factors include:
High blood pressure: This is probably the single most important factor that you can influence. Reducing high blood pressure (hypertension) can halve the chances of stroke. People under the age of 40 should have a blood pressure check every few years; those over 40 every two years. Do not assume you have nothing to worry about. Hypertension has been dubbed “the silent killer”.
Heart disease: Diseased heart valves may result in clots in the heart moving to the brain. Check out palpitations or abnormal heart rhythms with more than just the odd extra beat.
Diet: Limit dairy foods and fatty meals. Go for fish and lots of high-fiber fruit and veg. Cutting down on salt may help. After studying 552 middle-aged men for 15 years, Dutch researchers found that those eating more than 20 g of fish daily halved the risk compared with men eating less fish. This might be due to polyunsaturated fats reducing clotting and the narrowing of arteries. Oily fish (such as mackerel, herring and salmon) are particularly good.
Lack of exercise: Research suggests that individual risk is determined by activity between the ages of 15 and 25. Those who run, swim or play squash seem less vulnerable than more sedentary types. A study at Birmingham University found that active young adults were more likely to exercise in later life.
Smoking: Various studies have not shown the expected link between smoking and stroke, but they involved old people whose cigarette consumption was low. The heavy smokers may already have been killed off by heart attacks or cancer.
Why is smoking bad? Between 30 and 50 percent of blood comprises cells, mainly red blood cells. People whose blood has more than 50 percent cells have “thick blood” and are at increased risk to clotting. Smoking is a common cause of thick blood. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke makes 10 to 15 percent of blood cells ineffective; the number of red cells goes up to compensate.
Alcohol: Moderation is the key. A big slug of booze is believed to have a harmful effect on the circulation of blood in the brain.
Blood fats: Abnormally high levels of blood fats may trigger heart attack or strokes.
Obesity: Don’t get neurotic if you’re a couple of kilos overweight. It probably doesn’t matter, but being 10 to 15 kg overweight does. Rehabilitation after a stroke is also much more difficult for overweight people.
Family history: Seek regular checkups if several members of your family have had strokes. Hypertension, blood fat problems and diabetes (another risk factor) are inherited in some families.