While the onset of a stroke can seem sudden, the trouble leading to it often begins long before the first symptom. Problematic blood vessels are at the heart of every stroke; without a clear, sturdy path, oxygen-rich blood can't reach the brain to nourish it. And that’s what causes a stroke, otherwise known as a "brain attack."
The good news is that it typically takes time for vessels to clog due to the buildup of cholesterol-induced, artery-blocking plaque, just as it takes time for high blood pressure to weaken and damage them. So if you haven't suffered from a stroke, use this precious time to incorporate stroke-preventing strategies into your life. If you have already had a stroke, you should take note as well. Not only are stroke survivors at greater risk of having another stroke, but recurrent strokes can be more deadly and more debilitating than the initial attack because parts of the brain injured from the first stroke are more vulnerable to damage from subsequent strokes.
"It’s never too late for anyone to make healthful changes," says Shyam Prabhakaran, MD, MS, director of the Comprehensive Stroke Program at Rush University Medical Center. "It could make all the difference to your health."
Keep Blood Pressure in Check
Anytime you try to force a high volume of liquid through a narrow tube, you have the potential for leakage. That's basically how high blood pressure can wreak havoc on your arteries, and it's why people with high blood pressure are significantly more likely to have a stroke than those with normal levels; you need those arteries to stay intact to ensure your brain gets the oxygen it needs to function properly.
While genetics can play a role in blood pressure levels, wise choices can make a huge difference:
- Skip foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which can spike blood pressure levels, in favor of fresh fruit and vegetables. Examples of foods that increase cholesterol levels: egg yolks, cheddar and cream cheese, liver sausage and bratwurst.
- Limit salt and diet soda intake; both have been found to increase blood pressure.
- Stay fit and maintain a healthy weight. Excess pounds increase blood pressure, while exercise can reduce both blood pressure and cholesterol.
Control the Cholesterol
High cholesterol leads to plaque buildup in the arteries, which can result in high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke. Stop the vicious cycle by improving your eating habits and exercising. While nixing foods that boost cholesterol levels, embrace foods that lower them:
- Oatmeal and other high-fiber foods
- Certain types of fish, such as mackerel, lake trout and sardines
- Walnuts and almonds
- Olive oil
Cease Fire: Stop Smoking
If the potential for getting lung cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease hasn't convinced you to quit smoking cigarettes (or never start in the first place), consider this: Smoking cigarettes also contributes to strokes. Cigarettes can increase blood pressure, clog arteries and even decrease your levels of good cholesterol. They also make it hard to exercise, which helps you avoid strokes.
Lose (Some of) the Booze
While a glass of red wine with an evening meal has been shown to help protect the heart against heart disease, too much alcohol can weaken your blood vessels. It can also cause you to put on unwanted pounds. So limit the booze intake (for specific recommendations, it's best to ask your doctor who can provide personalized advice based on your health history) and make good choices when you do drink. Ordering a glass of wine is a far better call than going for the pitcher of frozen daiquiris.
Know the Warning Signs, Find a Stroke Center
The American Stroke Association advises everyone to educate themselves about the warning signs and locate a nearby hospital with a stroke center before an actual stroke. Why? Because with stroke, time is critical and, should you or a loved one experience signs of a stroke, you want to be evaluated and treated — speedily — by people with stroke expertise. "When stroke is suspected, time is of the essence," says Vivien Lee, MD, a stroke neurologist at Rush. "Millions of brain cells die every minute a stroke goes untreated."
Stroke centers, such as Rush, have around-the-clock emergency stroke care and have been accredited by the Joint Commission, which evaluates and accredits health care organizations around the country. At Rush, doctors follow a timed, standardized set of procedures, which requires that diagnostic tests, such as computed tomography scans and blood work, be given and evaluated immediately. And to bring this level of care to other hospitals, Rush has begun to use telemedicine — a real-time video-conferencing link between emergency department staff from outside hospitals and a stroke specialist at Rush. With this technology, stroke specialists at Rush can remotely evaluate and question patients as well as review diagnostic tests.
Whether it's in person or a virtual experience, though, you really don't want to see a stroke specialist — unless, of course, it's absolutely necessary or she's running on the treadmill next to you at the gym. That's why you need to seize the moment and make changes now. A few lifestyle tweaks can go a long way toward promoting a healthy brain and body.
More Information at Your Fingertips ...
- To schedule a visit with a primary care physician or neurologist at Rush, call (888) 352-RUSH (7874).
- Learn about the team effort that goes into providing high quality stroke care in a video featuring members of the stroke team at Rush.
- Get information about stroke-related clinical trials.
- Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (888 352-7874)
- Stay in touch with Rush with Rush blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.
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