Managing Your Stroke Risk

Stroke, an interruption in the flow of blood to the brain, affects more than three quarters of a million Americans each year. A person has a stroke, on average, every 40 seconds. It is the fourth most common cause of death in the country. It’s important to know the risk factors, both in order to better assess a person’s chances of having a stroke and, in some cases, to address bad habits that are making those chances higher than they need to be.

There are some risk factors for stroke that a person simply cannot control. The biggest one is age—every decade of life past 55 doubles someone’s risk. Family history of stroke is another one. Black people are more prone to stroke than people of other races, and women more so than men. There are also some other conditions, themselves due to a mix of controllable and uncontrollable factors, that raise stroke risk, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Another such condition is insomnia. The close to one-third of people who have trouble falling or staying asleep are 54 percent more prone to strokes than their well-rested peers. Insomnia was found to exacerbate the effects of diabetes on stroke risk, suggesting a link with the observed connection between insomnia and overeating. In addition, some activities, such as drinking alcohol and smoking, both raise stroke risk and often lead to insomnia. Researchers also suggest that lack of sleep raises blood pressure and causes mild inflammation, heightening vulnerability to stroke.

Marijuana also seems to show a link with stroke, as well as smaller stroke-like incidents called transient ischemic attacks. Though not as harmful as tobacco, marijuana is often smoked, and smoking anything can have deleterious effects on the cardiovascular system. In addition, marijuana is likewise associated with overeating, and also with being sedentary. The effect is most pronounced with heavy use.

People might not consider high stress a controllable risk factor, but it is, at least compared to gender. At any rate, relaxation techniques such as yoga can help lower the risk. A poor diet—high in salt and saturated fats—is something else that can be controlled. Even if saturated and trans fats can’t be cut out entirely, minimizing them in the diet can help. Quitting smoking makes a tremendous difference, particularly for women taking birth control pills. Finally, other illnesses that raise the risk do so less if properly treated.

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