Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability. According to the American Stroke Association, strokes cause 1 out of every 20 deaths in the United States. Younger adults are not immune to stroke.

Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death and a leading cause of disability. According to the American Stroke Association, strokes cause 1 out of every 20 deaths in the United States. Younger adults are not immune to stroke. In fact, there has been a 36 percent increase in the rate of individuals between ages 35 and 44 who were hospitalized in the United States for ischemic stroke from 2003 to 2012. The rate also increased substantially among ages 18-34 and ages 45-54. 

An ischemic stroke is the most common type of stroke, accounting for about 87 percent of all strokes, according to the American Stroke Association. This type of stroke involves a blockage of a large blood vessel leading to the brain. Hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel ruptures and begins bleeding in the brain, is less common. Blockages in the blood vessels are usually the result of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Depending on where the blockages occur, the result could be a heart attack or stroke.

There are several factors that can increase your risk of stroke, such as high blood pressure and smoking, but fortunately 80 percent of strokes could be prevented through lifestyle changes. Following are the most important things you can do to prevent a stroke.

1. Lower your blood pressure. Having high blood pressure can double, triple or even quadruple your risk of stroke if it is not well controlled. This is the biggest contributor to stroke for both men and women. 

2. Lose weight. Obesity and complications associated with obesity, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, increases your odds of having a stroke. Cut back on calories and increase your activity to help with weight loss.

3. Exercise more. Exercise helps lower blood pressure and can help with weight loss but it also stands alone to reduce stroke risk. Aim for moderate intensity exercise at least 30 minutes 5 days a week. If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare, you can break it up into 10 minutes or 15 minute segments multiple times a day.

4. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. More than two drinks a day can sharply increase blood pressure. Aim for no more than 1 drink per day. Make red wine your first choice because of the resveratrol content, which helps protect the heart and brain. And, watch your portion sizes. A standard drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces hard liquor.

5. Treat atrial fibrillation. Afib is a form of irregular heartbeats that can cause clots to form in the heart, which can then travel to the brain. If you have symptoms such as heart palpitations or shortness of breath see your doctor for available treatment options.

6. Manage your diabetes. Elevated blood sugars damage vessels making clots more likely to form. Diet, exercise and medications can all help to keep your blood sugar in good control.

7. Quit smoking. Smoking can accelerate clot formation by thickening the blood and increasing the amount of plaque buildup. Nicotine and carbon monoxide from smoking further act to damage the cardiovascular system. Check with your doctor for advice on stop smoking aids, such as medications, counseling or patches.

8. Improve your diet. A poor diet significantly can increase your risk of stroke. The DASH or Mediterranean diets are good ones to try, but following are some simple recommendations.

Aim for 4-5 cups of fruits and vegetables daily. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of potassium, which helps lower blood pressure.

Increase the fiber in your diet by choosing whole grains. Fiber helps remove cholesterol from the body. Whole grains are also high in B vitamins, which can benefit cardiovascular health.

Cut back on foods high in saturated fat, including red and processed meats. Excess saturated fat contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.

Choose foods that are lower in added sugar. These foods contribute to obesity and diabetes.

Add some nuts to your diet. Just eating a daily serving of ¼ cup of nuts, such as almonds or walnuts, has been associated with decreased stroke risk.

Decrease the amount of sodium in your diet by using less salt and eating fewer processed foods. Use seasonings other than salt to flavor your foods.  This will help lower blood pressure

Add fish to your diet 2-3 times a week. Fish, especially dark, oily fish like salmon or tuna, are high in omega-3 fats that can help with blood pressure and cholesterol control.

Learn more about making healthy choices at the Cardiovascular Screening, scheduled Saturday, Feb. 15, at Lake Regional Hospital. Free screenings, including blood pressure checks, will be available. Plus, low-cost screenings will be offered, including $5 lipid profiles (cholesterol check) and $5 fasting blood sugar tests. Register online at visit

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.