20 Surprising Habits That Increase Your Risk of a Stroke
These nasty habits do the most damage to your noggin.
Each year, around 795,000 Americans suffer from a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But there are many ways to lower your risk of a stroke. In fact, the CDC even notes that some 80 percent are preventable. Fortunately, that means that with just a few tweaks to your routine, you can lower your risk of stroke considerably.
The habits you’ll need to nix in order to do that, however, will surprise you. For example, did you know that drinking just one diet soda a day could make you more than twice as likely to suffer from a stroke? Or that sitting at a desk for too long could impact more than just your muscles? Read on to find out more about these surprising habits that increase your risk of a stroke.
You consume a ton of salty snacks.
Indulging in too many salty snacks can raise your blood pressure to unhealthy levels and increase your risk of having a stroke. That’s because high blood pressure can damage and weaken your brain’s blood vessels, causing them to narrow, rupture, or leak. It can also cause blood clots to form in the arteries leading to the brain, which can block blood flow and potentially cause a stroke, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In addition to notoriously high-sodium foods, you’ll also want to avoid sneakier salty foods canned soups and vegetables and bread. When in doubt, check the label. Try to stay under 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day (and move toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams), according to the American Heart Association.
You eat the wrong type of breakfast.
If a sugary cereal or a pile of pancakes is your breakfast of choice, you could be increasing your chances of suffering from an ischemic stroke—which is caused by a blood clot or plaque that blocks blood vessels in the brain.
A 2017 study published in the journal Stroke found that people who regularly started their day with whole grain cold breakfast cereal or total bran were significantly less likely to suffer from an ischemic stroke in their lifetime than those who didn’t.
You drink way too much alcohol.
Drinking alcohol can lower your risk of having a stroke—but only to a point. A 2019 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet found that men who reported having fewer than two drinks a day had a lower risk of stroke than non-drinkers (and, more specifically, ex-drinkers).
But after that, stroke risk increased with alcohol intake. In fact, a 2015 study published in the journal Stroke found that people who have more than two drinks a day have a 34 percent higher risk of stroke compared to those whose daily average amounted to less than half a drink.
You don’t have enough sex.
Studies have found that having sex on a regular basis can help lower blood pressure, which, in turn, can decrease your risk of stroke. According to one 2010 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, men who had sex at least twice a week were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease compared with men who had sex once a month.
Doing the deed has benefits for women, too. “Orgasm in women stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has a direct effect on lowering blood pressure,” Dr. E. Dean Nukta, medical director of interventional cardiology at Fairview Hospital, a Cleveland Clinic Hospital, told Everyday Health.
You’re not consuming enough Vitamin C.
One study presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in 2014 found that 59 percent of those who had experienced a hemorrhagic stroke (the type that occurs when a blood vessel ruptures inside of the brain) were deficient in vitamin C or showed either depleted levels of the vitamin. That was compared to a control group of people who had not experienced a stroke, who typically had normal levels of vitamin C.
It’s still unclear why this link exists. Study author Stéphane Vannier, MD, from the Pontchaillou University Hospital in Rennes, France, said that the vitamin may help to regulate blood pressure, although more research is needed to establish that link. In any case, it’s probably not a bad idea to add more vitamin C-rich foods, such as oranges, papaya, peppers, broccoli, and strawberries, to your diet.
You drink a considerable amount of diet soda.
You already know that sodas—diet or not—are not good for your health. But one long-term study published in the journal Stroke in 2017 found that the former could increase your risk of stroke specifically. The research showed that those who consumed even one artificially sweetened beverage a day were about twice as likely to suffer from a stroke in the following decade than those who drank less than one a week.
Drinking regular, sugar-sweetened drinks did not appear to raise stroke risk. However, experts at Harvard Medical School who reviewed the study said that the correlation could exist because some people who are already at risk for stroke (those who are overweight or who have diabetes) are more likely to choose diet sodas over regular ones in an effort to manage their health conditions. Regardless, it’s probably best for your overall health to opt for another beverage instead.
You don’t drink enough water.
Dehydration can cause numerous health problems, and can also increase your risk of stroke. A 2019 study published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology evaluated 203 patients who had suffered from either an ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke. The research found that dehydration was detected in nine percent of patients, including 4.5 percent at the time they were admitted to the hospital and 4.5 percent three days after the stroke.
Patients who were dehydrated at either time had slower, less successful recoveries, especially women and older patients. In short: Stay hydrated to decrease your risk of stroke and increase your odds of a speedy recovery if you do wind up having one.
You put off using the restroom.
After studying 727 cases of ischemic strokes, a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that 30 percent of patients had an infection in the 90 days preceding the stroke. The most common types of infections were urinary tract infections and respiratory infections. This correlation is likely due to the increased inflammation in the body that occurs as a result of the immune response to an infection.
Because urinary tract infections are sometimes caused by certain habits such as holding urine and not drinking enough water, according to the Mayo Clinic, you’ll want to avoid those habits in order to decrease your risk of stroke. You can help ward off other infections by washing your hands regularly with soap and hot water.
You don’t maintain close relationships.
If you have a habit of pushing people away as opposed to inviting new folks into your life, you might be putting yourself at increased risk of stroke. A 2016 review of 23 papers on cardiac risk factors published in the journal Heart by the British Cardiovascular Society found that poor social relationships, including loneliness or social isolation, led to a 32 percent increase in the risk of stroke. Researchers noted that lonely and isolated people are more likely to smoke and be physically inactive—both things that also lead to a heightened risk of stroke.
Researchers have repeatedly found a correlation between depression and a heightened risk of stroke. According to a 2012 review of multiple studies that was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, people with a history of depression experienced a 34 percent increase in their risk of stroke.
The researchers note that it’s unclear whether this association is causal. After all, there is evidence that depression is related to unhealthy habits, such as smoking and low physical activity, which can also increase the risk of stroke.
You don’t manage your current medical conditions.
You already know that keeping poor track of your prescriptions and not checking in with your doctors is a bad habit. But according to the Mayo Clinic, those suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, and cardiovascular disease, including “heart failure, heart defects, heart infection or abnormal heart rhythm,” should work to manage their afflictions, or they may be setting themselves up for a stroke, too.
You rely heavily on NSAIDS for pain relief.
Using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, every once in a while is fine. But if you rely heavily on them to treat pain, it could be a problem. Data from the Coxib and Traditional NSAID Trialists’ Collaboration in 2016 showed that ibuprofen increased the risk of non-fatal heart attack, stroke, and vascular death by 44 percent. In 2015, the Federal Drug Administration even strengthened an existing warning about NSAIDs and their increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
You spend too much time sitting at your desk.
Workaholics: You could be putting your overall health at risk by sitting for hours at a time, according to research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School in 2014. In this 12-year study of postmenopausal women, researchers found that women who sat for 10 or more hours a day were 18 percent more likely to suffer from a heart attack or stroke than those who only sat for five hours or less.
You eat too much red meat.
According to a 2012 study published in the journal Stroke, an affinity for red meat could put you at a higher risk of stroke. The study found that men who eat more than two servings of red meat (like beef, pork, and lamb) a day have a 28 percent higher risk of stroke versus those who only eat a third of this serving of red meat per day. Fortunately, the researchers also found that by simply substituting one serving of red meat a day with chicken, turkey, and other alternatives, participants in the study were able to decrease their risk of stroke.
You don’t manage the quality of the air in your home.
Research published in The Lancet Neurology in 2016 found that the more air pollution you’re exposed to, the more likely you are to suffer a stroke.
Using data from the Global Burden of Disease Study, researchers found that air pollution, including both environmental and household air pollution, is associated with about a third of the global stroke burden. And while you can’t do much about the quality of the air in your city, you can take the appropriate measures to manage the air quality in your home. For that, you’ll want to look into an air purifier, especially if you live in a place with high air pollution.
You don’t properly manage your stress.
More so than ever, researchers are learning that an inability to manage stress can lead to a plethora of health problems, including stroke. A 2001 study by the University of Michigan found that men who were more physiologically reactive to stress were 72 percent more likely to suffer from a stroke in their lifetime. So, in order to avoid putting yourself at risk, it might pay off to finally try that meditation class or find other outlets to better manage the stress that life throws at us.
You use methamphetamines.
According to a 2017 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, methamphetamine use may increase risk of stroke. Researchers found that methamphetamine use was linked most strongly to hemorrhagic strokes. The study also found that methamphetamine-related strokes tend to be deadlier than other types of strokes.
You don’t consume enough dairy.
If you truly want to decrease your risk of stroke, you might want to hit the cheese platter. According to a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, participants who had previously had a stroke consumed fewer dairy products, including various types of cheese, yogurt, milk, and chocolate milk, than those who hadn’t. As a result, the researchers concluded that higher dairy consumption is associated with lower stroke risk.
You don’t get enough vitamin D.
If you tend to stay inside during the daylight hours, you could be deficient in vitamin D, the vitamin we get from the sun. And it turns out, that could increase your risk of stroke. A 2012 meta-analysis published in the journal Stroke found that people who had lower levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the prehormone produced in the liver by hydroxylation of vitamin D) had an increased risk of stroke in comparison to those with higher levels. Along with soaking up the sun (with sunscreen, of course!), you can also get your vitamin D fix by eating foods like tuna, salmon, beef liver, and egg yolks.
You don’t promote your gut health
To keep your overall health on track, Lisa Richards, a certified nutritionist and creator of the Candida Diet, suggests maintaining a healthy gut. “A simple habit to reduce your risk of severe strokes is to add some probiotic foods to your diet,” she says. “Good examples are kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. They are easy to digest, nutritious, and contain probiotic bacteria that can help to rebalance your gut flora. If your gut is out of balance, probiotic foods could get it back in shape.” And for more simple health adjustments you can start making now, check out the 40 Easy Tweaks to Boost Your Health After 40.
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