As the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., strokes don’t discriminate—it can happen to anyone, at any time. In fact, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds in the U.S., killing more than 133,000 Americans annually. A stroke occurs when there is a lack of blood flow in a part of the brain that results in temporary or permanent damage. Fortunately, it is not inevitable, though, Americans are still painfully unaware of the preventive steps that could save their lives.
It’s time for a wake-up call.
There’s much to be done in the fight against stroke, especially since roughly 80% of incidents can be prevented with early detection and lifestyle changes. It’s now more critical than ever to focus on the prevention of this leading cause of death and serious, long-term disability.
As archaic as it sounds now, we used to think that sudden death was the first sign of stroke. However, advancements have taught us that there are detectable signs, including atrial fibrillation. That’s why we must begin our fight against stroke at a much younger age.
Below are five tips that can be used at any age to get smart about strokes today.
1. Shake your family tree for information
The old joke says you can’t pick your family. You can’t pick your genes, either. But here’s what you can do: Build a solid understanding of which diseases you may be at risk for, according to your family history.
If you have a relative that suffered from a stroke, that substantially increases your risk, especially if that relative is a parent or a sibling. If that’s the case, it’s extremely important to manage your controllable risk factors and take any necessary preventative measures to ensure you’re staying healthy.
2. Evaluate your lifestyle and manage risk factors ASAP
Beware of the feeling of invincibility that comes with youth. While you may not suffer a heart attack or a stroke at a young age, you could be setting yourself up for one. Preventing these seemingly sudden attacks requires making smart choices now that will pay off for the rest of your life.
You’ve likely heard it before, but diet and exercise are two of the most important factors in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Even from a young age, it’s crucial to focus on your diet and activity levels, since both significantly affect your risk of stroke and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
3. Monitor your blood pressure
High blood pressure is the chief culprit of stroke, and also the most important controllable risk factor. There’s a reason it’s sometimes called “the silent killer”: About three out of four people who have a stroke for the first time have high blood pressure, yet more than 20% are unaware of their condition.
The good news is that you can reduce your blood pressure through lifestyle modifications and medications. To manage your blood pressure, eat a healthy diet, engage in regular physical activity, manage stress, avoid tobacco smoke, limit alcohol intake, and take your medication as prescribed.
4. Pay attention to heart abnormalities
Don’t ignore the signs your body gives you. Atrial fibrillation—an irregular atrial heart rhythm—is a potent risk factor for stroke, present in about one out of five incidents. While often asymptomatic, AFib is not undetectable, and you can live with it.
It’s important to note that AFib can be successfully managed with the help of a healthcare professional and proper self-management of your AFib can prevent you from having a stroke. It’s in the patient’s hands, however, to take the initiative to proactively monitor their health. Like with any condition, the earlier you catch it, the easier it is to manage.
5. Establish open lines of communication with your doctor
The doctor’s office can be an intimidating place whether you’re sick or healthy. However, everyone—regardless of age or health—needs a doctor. By developing a relationship with a physician, especially at a young age, you can start heart-health screenings early.
Talk to your doctor openly and honestly about your diet, lifestyle, and risk factors. It can be incredibly comforting to know there is a doctor educated on your health and your history that can advise on how to best maintain your health.
Stroke is a scary reality, but that’s no reason to feel powerless against it. It will continue to become a growing problem in the U.S. until we, as a society, take on the stroke epidemic. No one wants to feel vulnerable, but refusing to acknowledge you may not be in perfect health only increases the risk. If you have any warning signs or risk factors, don’t ignore them—Go see your doctor.
It’s time to stop stroke in its tracks, and it starts with you.