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At Risk for Stroke? Diet Can Help

Amy Campbell

January 23, 2012

According to the National Stroke Association, stroke, or “brain attack” is the third leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 137,000 people each year and leaving many seriously disabled. While the incidence of strokes has fortunately decreased, the sad reality is that almost 800,000 strokes will occur this year.

Strokes can happen to anyone, at any age, at any time. Eighty seven percent of strokes are ischemic strokes, which occur when arteries get blocked by clots or pieces of plaque, resulting in the death of brain cells. Hemorrhagic strokes, which happen when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, account for only 13% of strokes, but they cause 30% of stroke deaths.

Diabetes and Stroke
When it comes to diabetes, we often talk about the link between diabetes and heart disease, and the increased risk for a heart attack. But you should be aware that stroke is more common in people with diabetes than in those without the condition; two out of three people with diabetes die from stroke or heart disease. Risk factors for stroke include:

• Having high blood pressure
• Smoking
• Having cholesterol and blood fat levels out of target range
• Having a history of stroke or mini-strokes, called transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)
• Having a family history of stroke or TIAs

Lower Your Risk
Keeping your diabetes “numbers” (A1C, blood glucose, blood pressure, lipids) in range can help you lower your risk of stroke. If you’ve been prescribed medicine, take it. Also, controlling your weight, staying physically active, and eating right will help, too. Luckily, the steps that you take to prevent stroke can help you prevent heart disease and possibly other health problems.

Foods That Can Help
In addition to taking medicine, staying active, and doing all the other things you know you should do, you might consider some of the following, which may help you lower your risk of stroke even further:

Olive oil. Chances are, you cook with olive oil and drizzle it on your salad. If so, keep it up, because a study that looked at adults age 65 and older showed that those who regularly used olive oil in their diet had a 41% lower risk of stroke compared to those who never used olive oil.

Coffee. Are you a woman? Do you like coffee? If you answered “yes” to both questions, you may already be lowering your stroke risk. In a study of 35,000 women aged 49 to 83, women who drank more than one cup of coffee every day lowered their stroke risk by up to 25% compared to women who drank less coffee. Coffee seems to offer other health benefits, as well. But it’s too soon to actually recommend coffee drinking for this reason. And we still don’t know if the same findings apply to men.

Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids (fats that are required for good health but not made by the body) found in a variety of foods, including fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring), vegetable oils (canola, soybean), flaxseed, and nuts. Omega-3s are important for a number of reasons, but in terms of stroke prevention, they can help prevent blood clots and lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which, in turn, means that there is less plaque build-up in artery walls. Aim to eat at least two fish meals each week, and squeeze nuts, canola oil, and perhaps some ground flaxseed (good on cereal) in your eating plan often.

Fruits and vegetables. No surprise here. You may have heard of the DASH diet, which is aimed at helping people lower blood pressure. But it goes further than that. The DASH diet, which focuses on plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein foods, and healthy fats, helped women in the Nurses’ Health Study lower their risk of stroke by 18% compared to women who ate more of a typical “American” diet. It makes sense, as lowering blood pressure and cholesterol lowers the risk for both heart attack and stroke.

Mediterranean diet. In a similar vein, researchers have found that people following the Mediterranean diet (also rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and healthy oils, and fairly low in red meat and sodium), have fewer strokes and a longer life expectancy (along with less heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer, and Parkinson disease).

What else can you do to lessen your chances of having a stroke? You’re likely doing these things already, or at least are aware of them:

• Cut back on salt and high-sodium foods.
• Eat less saturated fat, found in whole-milk dairy foods, red meat, and fast foods.
• Be more active, aiming to do physical activity most days of the week.
• Go easy on alcohol. In some studies, drinking more than two alcoholic beverages per day raised stroke risk by 50%.
• Don’t smoke.
• Know your numbers. Ask for your blood pressure result each time it’s checked, and keep tabs on your cholesterol, triglycerides, and A1C.



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