10 Surprising Clues to Stroke Risk
Strokes come on suddenly and can be deadly or debilitating, placing them among the scarier health concerns. Yet many people ignore stroke risk, mistakenly believing there's nothing to be done. While some strokes do come out of the blue, in many cases there are signs of the impending danger -- if you know what to look for.
Some risk factors are well known, such as being a longtime smoker or having high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation, but many come as big surprises. These ten surprising clues can alert you to a higher-than-normal risk of stroke. If one or more of these applies to you, you'll want to up your awareness, because acting fast can mean the difference between life and death.
1. You get migraines.
Migraines, particularly those accompanied by aura -- visual disturbances such as flashing lights -- boost the risk of stroke by 21 percent. This comes from long-term studies in Iceland that followed men and women for 26 years. Researchers are looking for an underlying genetic risk factor that could contribute to migraine, heart attack, and stroke.
Scary fact: Migraine sufferers are also more likely to have a heart attack or peripheral artery disease, which causes narrowing blood vessels in the legs.
Best bet: The precise connection between migraines and stroke isn't understood, but both conditions involve blood vessels in the brain. Migraines occur when the blood vessels in the brain constrict, then swell, while ischemic strokes -- the most common kind -- are caused by a blood clot blocking an artery in the brain. With that in mind, some experts recommend taking steps to prevent and treat migraines, either with natural remedies or medication to minimize effects on blood vessels.
2. You're Hispanic.
According to the American Stroke Association, Hispanics of both genders are much more likely to have a stroke than any other race. What's more, the strokes are more deadly: 33 percent of all deaths of Hispanic women are due to stroke, while in men it's a still startling 25 percent. Diet and other factors seem to paly a role, but researchers also predict that an underlying genetic predisposition will be discovered.
Scary fact: People of Hispanic descent also tend to have strokes earlier in life; the average age of stroke in Hispanics is 67, compared with 80 in whites.
Best bet: The higher risk of stroke in Hispanics is partially linked to higher rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and metabolic syndrome, all of which up stroke risk, so controlling these underlying conditions can provide some protection.
3. You love bacon.
If your diet includes regular consumption of processed meats such as sausage, bacon, lunch meats, ham, and hot dogs, your stroke risk is 23 percent higher. The scientific explanation isn't clear-cut, but researchers suggested that sodium in meat may increase risk both by boosting blood pressure and by causing vascular stiffness. Nitrate and nitrite preservatives may also contribute to stroke risk by a mechanism that isn't known yet. Of course, there are other foods that can trigger a stroke, but processed meat is among the worst culprits.
Scary fact: It's not just processed red meat that's the culprit; lower-fat deli meats such as turkey, chicken, and bologna were found to carry just as high a stroke risk.
Best bet: Make processed meats a special-occasion treat. Unfortunately, you can't just offset a bacon or salami habit by eating healthier overall; studies show that people who eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains but who also eat large amounts of processed meats are still at higher risk.
4. You hate the gym.
Sorry, couch potatoes, but that attachment to the remote really could kill you. Would you get off the couch if you knew that even moderate exercise could lower your risk of a nonfatal stroke by 20 percent and your risk of a fatal stroke by 30 percent? Overall stroke risk drops substantially with even moderate levels of cardiovascular fitness. Even a little helps. According to researchers, all you need is 30 minutes or more of aerobic activity -- brisk walking, for instance -- five times a week.
Scary fact: Lack of activity also makes strokes worse when they do happen. People who were less active before having a stroke had more severe strokes and didn't recover as fully afterwards, research shows.
Best bet: Build regular, moderate activity into your schedule. According to the Nurses Health Study, which followed 72,000 women between the ages of 40 and 65, regular exercise cut the risk of ischemic stroke by half.
5. You have diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes are two to three times more likely to have a stroke. And the risk can be even greater if you continue to smoke or develop hyperglycemia or atrial fibrillation. Strokes are also more severe and cause higher mortality in diabetics, particularly if their glucose levels were higher when they were admitted.
Scary fact: The increased stroke risk that comes with diabetes doesn't change, no matter how proactively you control the disease. According to recent research, being proactive about glucose control lowers the risk of vascular complications such as loss of vision but doesn't lower stroke risk.
Best bet: Taking hypertension medication and a statin to cut cholesterol lowers stroke risk considerably. And preventing diabetes by keeping active and losing weight lowers stroke risk as well.