You Can Prevent a Brain Attack

You Can Prevent a Brain Attack

Thanks to amazing medical advances, more people than ever are surviving strokes -- the blood clots and leaks that block blood flow to parts of the brain. But here’s a new reason not to be among the 795,000 Americans who have one each year: A study finds that stroke ages your brain by eight years.

When University of Michigan scientists compared memory and thinking-speed tests before and after a stroke for 4,900 people, they found that having a brain attack eroded mental skills as much as if they’d aged almost a decade overnight.

But here’s the good news: While up to one in three Americans is at higher-than-average risk for a stroke, a whopping 80% of brain attacks don’t have to happen at all! Here’s a simple, four-step plan to protect your noggin:

Take high blood pressure very seriously. Out-of-control blood pressure boosts your odds for a stroke four to six times higher than normal. If you’re among the 78 million Americans with hypertension or the 70 million with prehypertension, it’s time to act. See your doc if you don’t know your blood pressure numbers or if you’re not sure they’re in the healthy zone -- we think 115/75 is a good target for most people. Weight loss, exercise, a produce-packed diet that’s naturally low in sodium and taking time to de-stress can help. And if you’re prescribed BP meds, take them! Then keep a spreadsheet of your numbers. Your brain’s worth it.

Do. Not. Smoke. Cigarettes double your risk for an ischemic stroke -- the most common type, caused by blood clots, and raises your risk for a hemorrhagic stroke, caused by a leaky blood vessel, four-fold. It’s never too late to quit. Best plan: An anti-crave medication, nicotine-replacement patches and other products like sprays and gums and a rock-solid support system.

Lower your “lousy” LDL cholesterol. High LDL levels can clog your carotid arteries, the big blood vessels at the sides of your neck that send blood to your brain, with fatty plaque. That boosts stroke risk. 

Rebalance your LDL cholesterol level by eating fewer saturated fats (in fatty and processed meats, full-fat dairy products and processed foods), enjoying “good” fats, like nuts, olive oil, fatty fish and avocadoes, in moderation, and walking 10K (10,000 steps) every day, no excuses. And if your doc recommends a cholesterol-lowering statin, take it. Studies show that folks with a high stroke risk can lower their odds for a brain attack 21% by taking a statin. Statins also help prevent the brain aging that happens from a stroke.

Control diabetes. Blood-sugar problems boost stroke risk by 50%. High blood pressure and high cholesterol often come along with diabetes. Keep blood sugar in line, too.

Eat well. A Mediterranean diet -- full of produce, good fats, fish, beans, plus some nuts, olive oil and red wine in moderation -- could reduce your stroke risk by 18%, according to new research from Spain. You brain will thank you for eating like you’re on a Mediterranean vacation, relaxing on the patio with grilled fish, a big salad and a glass of wine.

Get sweaty. Get 10,000 steps a day. Once you’re doing that, add tennis, gardening or swimming. Any activity that challenges you a little bit cuts odds for “ministrokes” -- transient ischemic attacks that often presage a full-blown stroke -- by 40%. These little strokes double your risk for brain dysfunction and boost your odds for a full-blown stroke five-fold. And they’re common: About 11% of people between ages 55-65 and 50% of people over age 80 have’ them.

Act fast. If you or a loved one has any signs of a stroke, call 9-1-1 right away. Signs include weakness or numbness on one side of the body; sudden confusion or trouble understanding; trouble talking; dizziness, loss of balance or trouble walking; difficulty seeing or double vision; and/or severe headache. Remember, time lost is brain lost.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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