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The Comprehensive Stroke Center at University Hospital

Managing Lifestyle Risks


Diet and Nutrition: A high level of “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream is a major risk factor for stroke. The primary way that cholesterol enters our bodies is through fats in the food we consume, which is why a sensible, balanced diet is so important.

Studies also link high levels of sodium (salt) in the diet – already known to increase blood pressure – with increased risk of stroke.

Physical Activity: Physical activity helps control many of the risk factors associated with stroke, while lack of physical activity can contribute to them. By improving blood circulation, exercise enhances the body’s ability to use oxygen, which helps to reduce blood pressure. Regular physical exercise has been shown to increase “good” cholesterol levels, decrease triglyceride (body fat) levels, and help manage body weight (prevent obesity).

Smoking: Smoking increases your chance of suffering a stroke and contributes to a variety medical disorders linked to stroke, such as cardiovascular disease. Nicotine (the addictive element in cigarettes) raises blood pressure and the likelihood of developing hypertension. Cigarette smoke — which contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including 43 known to cause cancer — thickens the blood, making it more likely to clot.

A study published in the May 2003 issue of Stroke, a journal of the American Heart Association, showed that the risk of stroke increases incrementally depending on how many cigarettes a day you smoke. The study also revealed that former smokers and those who had never smoked had the same risk of all three kinds of stroke, suggesting that quitting smoking can reduce the risk of stroke.

Even environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), or secondhand smoke, has been linked to increased risk of stroke because it contains the same harmful chemicals that smokers inhale. ETS includes mainstream smoke – the smoke that is drawn through the mouthpiece of a cigarette then exhaled into the air by smoker – and side stream smoke, which comes from the burning tobacco in cigarettes.

Substance Abuse: Use of certain illegal or controlled substances has been shown to increase the risk of certain types of stroke — particularly hemorrhagic stroke. Cocaine (“crack” in its smoked form) causes a severe elevation of blood pressure that can rupture a blood vessel leading to or inside of the brain. Smoked amphetamines — such as crystal meth and ice — as well as any illicit drug injected into the bloodstream also can produce stroke.
Among adolescents and young adults, an increasing percentage of strokes occur in relation to drug use.

Alcohol Consumption: Studies show that heavy use of alcohol – defined as two drinks or more a day – can dramatically increase blood pressure. High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major risk factor for hemorrhagic stroke. In fact, studies suggest that heavy alcohol use may increase more than tenfold the chances of suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH).

Obesity: Obesity increases the chance of suffering hypertension and high blood cholesterol, both of which are significant factors in stroke. Some research suggests that even modest weight gain over the ideal weight, such as 24 to 43 pounds over 16 years, doubles the chances of suffering a stroke.

Diet and physical activity are the primary treatments for obesity.