Strokes are one of the leading causes of death around the world.
In 2010, according to the American Heart Association, about 33 million people suffered a stroke, and fatal strokes accounted for 11.13 percent of deaths worldwide. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that nearly 800,000 men and women have a stroke every year, and on average one American dies from a stroke every four minutes.
Your risk of stroke, and especially death from stroke, increases as you age, but this health problem is not restricted to older populations. In 2009, nearly 34 percent of patients who ended up in the hospital because of a stroke were under the age of 65.
These statistics are made even more staggering by an extensive study that showed nearly 90 percent of strokes could have been prevented with healthier behaviors.
The study, which was completed in two parts, looked at more than 26,000 participants in 32 countries, including men and women of different ages and economic backgrounds. Researchers examined the causes and risk factors for the two major types of strokes: hemorrhagic, which is caused by bleeding in the brain and makes up 15 percent of strokes, and ischemic, which is caused by blood clots and accounts for 85 percent of strokes.
The researchers found that both types have similar patterns of risk factors, many of them related to lifestyle choices.
The 10 risk factors identified by researchers were related to nearly 90 percent of strokes that occurred within the study population. These risk factors were alcohol consumption, smoking, diabetes, physical activity, poor diet, obesity, cardiac health, cholesterol levels, stress, and high blood pressure.
Of the 10 risk factors, high blood pressure, or hypertension, was the largest single contributor to stroke. Researchers found that strokes would decrease by nearly 48 percent worldwide if hypertension were eliminated.
Other major contributors were lack of physical activity, which contributes to 36 percent of strokes; unhealthy cholesterol levels, which was related to 37 percent; and poor diet, which was related to 19 percent of incidents. Eliminating smoking, researchers found, would decrease the number of strokes by 12 percent, while reducing alcohol intake and lowering stress levels would each correspond to a 6 percent reduction worldwide.
Many risk factors were associated with each other as well, such as obesity and diabetes. If both these risks were eliminated, the study’s authors estimated that it would lead to nearly 91 percent fewer strokes around the world.
The most significant risk factors also varied from country to country. In the United States and Western Europe, for example, hypertension was the most common risk factor, leading to nearly 40 percent of incidents. In Southeast Asia, it was even more significant, causing an estimated 60 percent of strokes.
The relationship between alcohol consumption and stroke was weakest in the United States but very strong in regions of Africa and South Asia. China’s most common cause of stroke was physical inactivity.
Though the importance of individual risk factors varied from country to country, the overall importance of all 10 lifestyle choices was consistent among all the populations studied.
This, the study concludes, is actually good news. If these risk factors contribute to 9 out of 10 strokes, then lifestyle modifications and better worldwide health education could drastically decrease the number of deaths from preventable strokes each year.
The lifestyle modifications that researchers recommend are also encouraged by the CDC to reduce your risk of stroke. These include maintaining a healthy weight and diet, not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption to one drink or less per day, and exercising for 30 to 60 minutes per day.
Many of these risk factors, and the corresponding healthy behaviors that prevent them, are related. Combining a healthy diet and regular exercise, for example, lowers your risk of obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Exercise, avoiding alcohol, and reducing stress are all related to lower blood pressure.
Taken together, making a few changes in your everyday habits could significantly lower your risk of stroke for the rest of your life.
September 20, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN