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Are You at Risk for Stroke?

April 26, 2011

Combined Risk Factors Increase the Chances of Stroke, Other Serious Diseases

It’s easy to put all of the body’s different parts into separate categories. The brain here. The heart there. The kidneys in yet another category. But when it comes to disease prevention and staying healthy, what you do to keep one part of the body healthy can help all the others, too.

To connect the dots, members of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program will discuss stroke prevention and how it relates to healthy lifestyle choices during a free seminar next Tuesday, May 3.

Stroke prevention means looking at all the factors

According to Ash Jain, M.D., medical director of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program, it’s a good idea to look at how separate risk factors play a role in your overall stroke risk.

"People may not realize that conditions such as hypertension and diabetes increase the risk of stroke," Dr. Jain says. "They contribute to atherosclerosis, which can cause plaque. As plaque progresses and causes arterial blockage and decreased blood flow, it leads to cell death; or it can break off and block a smaller artery, which also can lead to cell death."

This cell death, he says, is seen as a symptom of stroke. And unfortunately, in the case of brain cells, which do not regenerate, their death from lack of oxygen carried by the blood may leave victims of stroke permanently disabled, particularly in cases when treatment is not sought immediately.

To prevent stroke, Dr. Jain points out that there are a lot of things people can do, but the first thing you have to do is figure out what your risk looks like now, so you know where you have to improve.

"The first step is for patients to make an appointment with their primary care physician to talk about all the risk factors," he says.

The doctor may recommend changes to lifestyle, such as improving diet, incorporating exercise and quitting smoking, but there are other factors that require medical intervention, according to Dr. Jain.

"For conditions such as irregular heartbeat or atherosclerosis, these conditions need to be diagnosed by a physician treated accordingly in order to manage them properly," he points out.

Dr. Jain reminds community members that stroke often occurs with no advance warning. Other times, warnings, like transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)—which can cause a passing numbness and tingling—are not brought to the attention of the doctor because patients don’t realize how serious they are.

Dr. Jain recommends that anyone age 50 and older with several risk factors for stroke, as well as those of any age who have irregular heartbeat, should be attend the upcoming seminar.

What is metabolic syndrome?

Doug Van Houten, R.N., the Stroke Program’s clinical coordinator, says he’s always trying to find different ways to help community members reduce their risk of stroke.

"We always focus on how stroke can be prevented, especially since you can prevent up to 80 percent of stroke cases through lifestyle controls," he says. "During the upcoming seminar, I’m going to talk about something new, a particular grouping of different lifestyle risk factors is called metabolic syndrome."

"A lot of people haven’t heard about metabolic syndrome, but I think it’s worth understanding in relation to stroke prevention."

Metabolic syndrome, according to Van Houten, is made up of five different risk factors that increase a person’s risk of stroke and a number of other diseases.

"If you’ve got any three of these factors, then you’re considered to have metabolic syndrome," he says.

The five risk factors are:

  • Being overweight, particularly if you have "belly fat" (with a waist measurement of more than 35 inches for a woman or more than 40 inches for a man)
  • Having high blood pressure (i.e., 130/80 and above)
  • Being diagnosed with high low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol
  • Having high triglyceride levels, another element of blood cholesterol
  • Being glucose intolerance (i.e., if your fasting blood sugar is greater than 100)

"It’s called metabolic syndrome because these are all things that have to do with not eating right and not getting enough exercise," Van Houten explains. "If you eat a proper diet, including more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and you do regular exercise, then your blood pressure and weight will start to go down."

It sounds simple enough, but he says there are a lot details people may not be aware of.

"When it comes to cholesterol, your body is actually responsible for about 75 percent of its production, but with the other 25 percent you can make a difference," Van Houten points out. "Many times, people don’t know that one egg yolk provides more than your daily cholesterol needs."

Getting educated about stroke is important, but like Dr. Jain points out, it’s also important to visit the doctor on a regular basis, because some things you can’t tell just by looking in the mirror, Van Houten adds.

"Certain people can be very slender and they can have good diet, yet they still have high cholesterol," he says. "The No. 1 thing is being aware of all these things that contribute to metabolic syndrome and stroke risk. You need to see a doctor every once in a while to check things like cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure."

Van Houten also points to societal factors that have made it harder to make healthy choices—things we may not even think of because they have become so "normal" in our daily lives.

"Certainly mass marketing is to blame for the increased rate of obesity," he says. "The number of fast food restaurants has increased seven times since the 1970s. The food tastes good and it’s everywhere, but it’s also high in fat, cholesterol, sugar and salt."

Van Houten says he wants more people to realize that day-to-day lifestyle choices are interconnected when it comes to health.

"I’d really like to get people on the road to fixing as much as they can with lifestyle changes," Van Houten says. "When you really look at it, making lifestyle changes can help in preventing almost everything—cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke."

Achieving a healthier lifestyle

To learn about stroke prevention and how you can make long-term healthy lifestyle changes, attend the Free Stroke Education Series seminar coming up next Tuesday, May 3, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, located in the Washington West building at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont.

Call (510) 745-6525 or visit www.whhs.com/stroke to register.