More surprising clues to stroke risk
6. You're black.
People of African-American descent are twice as likely to die from strokes as Caucasians. The risk comes with both a first stroke and with subsequent strokes. Also, in blacks strokes tend to occur earlier in life and to be more disabling if they aren't fatal. The genetic disorder sickle cell anemia also ups stroke risk because sickle-shaped cells can block blood vessels to the brain.
Scary fact: Between 6 and 8 percent of people with sickle cell anemia will have a stroke, and the danger is highest in children ages 2 to 10.
Best bet: You can't control genetics, but quitting smoking and making lifestyle changes to lose weight, lower blood pressure, and prevent diabetes can help reduce your stroke risk.
7. You like to kick back at the local bar.
Would you cut back on the booze if you knew that three or more drinks a day can raise your stroke risk by 45 percent? That's the conclusion of a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which followed 38,000 men between the ages of 40 and 75 for 15 years. There's also some alarming research -- albeit from a small study -- showing that the chance of stroke increases greatly in the first hour after consuming a drink.
Scary fact: Binge drinking, in particular, leads to a spike in stroke risk. And if you have high blood pressure and go on a bender, watch out; research found that drinking six drinks or more doubled the risk of stroke in men with hypertension.
Best bet: If you're a moderate drinker -- defined as having one or two drinks approximately every other day -- your risk of stroke is actually lower than it is for teetotalers. So limit your drinking to a few glasses (preferably of red wine, which is heart-protective) per week.
8. You're anemic.
Anemia, caused by a lower-than-normal level of red blood cells, causes changes in the blood vessels of the brain, making it more vulnerable to a stroke and less able to counteract a stroke once it occurs. For some time, researchers have known that children and teenagers who were severely anemic had a high risk of stroke, but it's now known that even mild anemia ups stroke risk for adults, too.
Scary fact: New research published in February 2012 found that men who were only slightly anemic nonetheless had triple the chance of dying in the first year after a stroke.
Best bet: Treat anemia to increase red blood count with a diet high in iron or an iron supplement.
9. You buy your jeans in the husky or XL department.
Being overweight is associated with higher stroke risk in three different ways: Above-average BMI, above-average waist circumference, and above-average waist-to-hip ratio all correlate with increased stroke risk. If you already have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, adding weight into the mix doesn't make as much of a difference because you're already at three times the average risk for stroke. But if your blood pressure and blood lipids are under control and you're still overweight, it's time to slim down.
Scary fact: An estimated 63 percent of men and 55 percent of women are considered overweight, and 30 percent are considered obese. If you're obese, your stroke risk skyrockets to as high as seven times that of the general population. Being overweight increases your risk of all types of heart disease, as well.
Best bet: Embark on a gradual, supervised weight-loss program with the goal of decreasing BMI to between 18.5 and 24.9. Guys, try to get down to a waist circumference of less than 40 inches. And gals, try for a waist measurement of less than 35 inches.
10. You don't like fruit or veggies.
Study after study shows a direct relationship between the quantity and proportion of fruit and vegetables you eat and your stroke risk. Eat a diet low in fruits and veggies and high in saturated fat (such as meat) and carbs, and your stroke risk spikes. Eat a super-healthy diet in which half the food you eat comes from plants, and your stroke risk goes down in inverse proportion. Studies also show that specific antioxidants and phytochemicals present in carrots, citrus, white fruits (such as apples), greens, tomatoes, and other fruits and vegetables protect against stroke. One study found that an increase of one gram per day of white-fleshed fruits and vegetables is associated with a 9 percent lower risk of stroke. Another found that those who ate the most citrus fruits and juice had a 10 percent reduced risk of stroke compared with those eating none. That old-fashioned admonishment to eat an apple a day had science behind it after all.
Scary fact: Diet is one of the biggest contributors to stroke risk. Researchers at Harvard divided women into groups based on diet and found that those who ate the worst diet increased their total stroke risk by 47 percent, their ischemic stroke risk by 33 percent, and hemorrhagic stroke risk by 70 percent.
Best bet: Eat a fruit salad for breakfast. If your diet consists of close to 50 percent fruits and vegetables, you can slash your stroke risk by half.