Live Well to Reduce Stroke Risk

Healthnotes Newswire (September 14, 2006)—Now there’s yet another reason for women to watch their weight, get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and not smoke: a recent report suggests that these lifestyle choices protect women against stroke.

Approximately 700,000 strokes occur in the United States each year, and about 23% of these are fatal. There are two types of strokes: ischemic strokes involve a blood clot that forms or gets lodged in a small artery in the brain, interrupting blood flow; in hemorrhagic stroke, a small blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds into the brain. Both types of stroke cause brain damage and usually the loss of some neurological function. Even when a person survives, the damage to the brain is often at least partially irreversible.

Smoking increases stroke risk, as does being overweight. Exercising regularly and drinking alcohol in moderation have been found in some studies to reduce the risk, and some dietary factors might also protect against stroke. Little is known about the combined effects of these lifestyle factors on stroke risk.

The current report is based on data from the Women’s Health Study, in which health information from more than 37,000 women age 45 or older was evaluated to determine the combined effects of smoking, alcohol, exercise, weight, and diet on risk of stroke. The highest scores were given for never smoking, drinking between 4 and 10.5 alcoholic drinks per week, exercising four or more times per week, a body mass index (BMI, a number calculated using weight and height) of 22 or lower (indicating that the person is not overweight), and a healthy diet (high in fiber, folic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids, and low in saturated fat, trans fatty acids, and simple sugars). From these scores an overall health index was calculated.

Considered individually, smoking and being overweight were strongly associated with increased stroke risk, while regular exercise and alcohol consumption had no influence. Having a healthy diet was linked to lower risk. Women with the highest overall health index had a 55% lower risk of stroke and 71% lower risk of ischemic stroke than women with the lowest health index. The risk of hemorrhagic stroke was not found to be related to the overall health index.

“This reflects what we see in the acute rehabilitation unit,” said Michael Denmeade, director of the therapeutic recreation department at Mount Ascutney Hospital in Windsor, Vermont. “Many of the stroke patients we work with have a long smoking history, have a poor diet, and don’t exercise. Some other factors that we see correlating with stroke are high stress levels and poor coping skills, and chronic sleep disorders which are often stress-related.”

The results of this study seem to suggest that most strokes, especially ischemic strokes, are preventable. “Our findings show the importance of healthy behaviors in the prevention of total and ischemic stroke,” the authors noted in their conclusion. Healthcare providers can help women avoid stroke by encouraging them to quit smoking, to exercise, and to eat healthfully.

(Arch Intern Med 2006;166:1403–9)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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