Approximately every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a stroke and roughly every four minutes someone dies of a stroke. Strokes cause about one in 18 deaths annually – making it the third leading cause of death – and are the primary reason for long-term disability. So if you could take steps now to lower your risk of having a stroke, you would, wouldn’t you? Well, you can. First on your list would be to control your blood pressure.
The most important risk factor for stroke is high blood pressure, or hypertension. If left untreated, this condition can damage blood vessels throughout the body, causing them to narrow and clog more easily or weaken them so they could burst resulting in internal bleeding. When blood vessels in the brain become blocked or break and then leak blood into the brain, brain cells begin to die and the brain is not able to function properly. In addition to stroke, high blood pressure also can cause other forms of brain damage, including transient ischemic attacks, or ministrokes, dementia, which impairs the ability to speak, reason, remember, see and move, and mild cognitive impairment, which may affect language, attention, critical thinking, reading, writing, as well as reaction time and memory.
Blood pressure is the amount of force exerted by blood against artery walls. It is expressed in two numbers that are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The first number, or systolic blood pressure, measures the amount of force when the heart beats. The second number, or diastolic blood pressure, measures pressure in the arteries between heartbeats. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg. Prehypertension may be diagnosed if the systolic pressure is between 120 to 139 mmHg or the diastolic pressure is between 80 to 89 mmHg. Blood pressure is considered to be high if systolic pressure is 140 mmHg or higher, or if the diastolic pressure is 90 mmHg or higher, which also can be expressed as 140/90 mmHg.
Blood pressure can be controlled by making lifestyle changes or taking medication. Some ways to manage blood pressure include:
- Reducing salt in foods
- Eating healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, skinless chicken, lean meats, turkey, fish, and low-calorie, low-fat snacks
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Engaging in physical activity on a regular basis by exercising through walking, swimming, riding a bicycle or dancing
- Limiting alcohol intake to no more than two alcoholic drinks a day for men and one per day for women
- Not smoking
- Taking medications as directed by your physician to lower blood pressure
In addition to being the leading cause of stroke, high blood pressure can cause heart failure, coronary artery disease, kidney failure and eye blood vessel damage. It has also been linked to sexual dysfunction, bone loss and trouble sleeping. For more information about high blood pressure, talk with your doctor or visit the American Stroke Association Web site at www.strokeassociation.org.