It just starts with one simple step
I was recently at a stroke prevention talk for physicians and medical students. The speaker started the talk by asking the audience several questions. The first was; “If you had a stroke, how many of you would want to be on a treatment program to prevent a second one?” Everyone’s hand shot up. The second question was; “If you haven’t had a stroke how many of you would want to be on a treatment program to prevent a stroke in the first place?” Again everyone’s hand went up.
Next she asked; “How many of you currently do these things: exercise regularly, on average greater than 150 hours a week; maintain a healthy diet and weight; don’t smoke; limit alcohol intake; maintain normal blood pressure, sugars and cholesterol?” After this question only a few hands went up. The audience appeared embarrassed. They knew that doing these few things is indeed the best treatment program to prevent strokes, and they were not practicing what they preached to their patients.
Just like the doctors in the audience, most people know that they need to have a healthy life style, which includes regular exercise, not smoking and healthy eating. Unfortunately, many of us, doctors included, do not start these simple preventive measures until it is too late, after we already start to have problems.
We as a society are too much into instant gratification, ‘we want it now’ mentality. Darren Hardy talks about this in his book, The Compound Effect. In this book he states that if we knew that eating unhealthy foods like a Big Mac would cause us to have a stroke at that instant we would not eat that Big Mac. The problem is that since you do not have a stroke at that instant we keep on eating the unhealthy foods. Unfortunately, there is a negative affect; it is just delayed. Over time these unhealthy habits of eating fatty food, lack of regular exercise, and smoking leads to narrowing of the blood vessels (atherosclerosis), high blood pressure and diabetes. Having these conditions then increase your risk for stroke.
Stroke is the 4th leading cause of death and the leading cause of disability in the United States.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is blocked or interrupted. This results in damage to that area of brain tissue. Typically, this causes a sudden onset of symptoms including weakness or numbness to one side of the body, problems talking, visual changes, lack of control of movements or dizziness.
What causes this lack of blood flow to the brain? It can be caused by a narrowing of the blood vessels in the brain from the build up of the fatty deposits (atherosclerosis). Those small arteries in the brain can also be narrowed by vasoconstriction from high blood pressure. The other main cause of blockage is from clots that break off of atherosclerotic plagues from the neck, or from blood clots from the heart that travels through the brain’s blood vessels until it reaches vessels too small to let it pass.
What are the main controllable risk factors for stroke?
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol levels (specifically, high LDL or “bad” cholesterol)
- Type 2 diabetes
The best defense against having a stroke is controlling these risk factors. This is not done by taking a pill but instead by starting these simple healthy behaviors of what the American Heart Association describe as “Life’s simple 7”:
- Get active or exercise
- Control cholesterol
- Eat better
- Manage blood pressure
- Lose weight
- Reduce blood sugar
- Stop smoking
I know that this seems like a lot to do all at once. So just take one step at a time. A good first step is to start by exercising 30 minutes, 5 days a week. This one simple activity can have a positive compounding effect over time. Regular exercise will then help with some of the other risk factors by lowering your blood pressure and help you lose weight. The changes in weight will not start the first time you exercise but if you continue it, the weight loss benefits will come and hopefully will decrease your risk for a stroke.
We all have a choice, do you want to choose a simple action (regular exercise) that can improve your health or one that can have a negative affect (eating that big mac).