Some 800,000 Americans suffer strokes every year; stroke is the fourth most common cause of death in the United States. And while most stroke victims survive, stroke is the biggest source of permanent disability in the U.S.
Now, a new study from Sweden finds that five healthy lifestyle choices may reduce the likelihood of women suffering the most common type of stroke by as much as 54 percent, compared to women who have none of the healthy factors that were measured.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm, Sweden, followed close to 32,000 women for an average of 10 years; the average age of the participants was 60. The study asked the women about their diets and lifestyles; they were asked whether they:
- Ate healthy diets
- Drank alcohol moderately
- Didn’t smoke
- Were physically active
- Had a healthy body weight
A healthy diet was defined as one in the top half of a score that measured how often women ate such healthy foods as fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and so forth. Moderate drinking was defined as consuming between 3 and 9 alcoholic drinks per week. Being physically active meant the women walked or biked at least 40 minutes a day, and engaged in more strenuous exercise for at least an hour once a week. A healthy body weight was defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of under 25.
The study found that the more of these healthy habits the women had, the more they decreased their chances of having an ischemic stroke; women who had all five healthy habits cut their risk by more than half. During the study period, 1,554 participants had strokes.
Susanna Larsson, PhD, a researcher at the institute, noted that there is no minimum number of healthy factors a person should have, but the more of them, the better. Having two healthy factors is better than having one or none; having four is better than having two. In her study, close to 1,500 of the women had none of the healthy habits; 589 had all five. Most participants had 2 or 3.
Ischemic strokes, which constitute 85 percent of all strokes, happen when a blood clot blocks an artery that feeds blood to the brain; the study found no relationship between the healthy lifestyle habits and hemorrhagic strokes. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel inside the brain or on its surface ruptures and causes bleeding within or around the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes account for the remaining 15 percent of all strokes.
Dr. Larsson noted that it’s never too late to adopt healthy habits; if a person finds that they’ve reached a point where they need to get healthier, they should simply start making positive changes. (If it’s been a long time since you’ve exercised, you will want to start out slowly and build up gradually, to avoid injuries. Also, if you have any existing health issues, ask your doctor what types of activities will be safe for you.)
The study was published online in a recent edition of the journal Neurology. While it showed that healthy lifestyle habits are linked to reduced ischemic stroke risk, it did not prove that healthy habits cause the decreased risk; however, it builds on previous studies that also found that those habits, separately and together, are associated with lower stroke risk, as well as lower risk for many other diseases.
Because the study only followed women, Larsson said she couldn’t say whether the results would also apply to men; she and her team plan to do another similar study of men.
Health authorities underscore that both cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of death in the U.S., and strokes, which are connected to CVD, are largely preventable. It only takes being committed to doing things that most of us already know are good for us. Even though it may take some discipline to start practicing healthier habits in your life, it won’t be long before you accustom your body to the new, better habits. Soon, they will become a part of your routine, and you won’t want to go back to your old bad habits!
And is it ever too late to change your habits, to get healthier? Fortunately, the answer to that question is a resounding no. No matter what your age, you will be and feel healthier, if you’re good to your body.
By Jamell Andrews