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Did Preventing Stroke Make Your List of New Year’s Resolutions?

December 18, 2013

Moderate Diet and 10 Minutes of Exercise a Day Can Go a Long Way

It’s New Year’s Eve again, and for many of us, it’s a time to take stock of our overall health and wellness—and to make those New Year’s resolutions. According to Dr. Ash Jain, medical director of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program, learning about how to prevent stroke is one of the most important resolutions you can make.

“Steps you take today can have a significant impact on stroke risk, so much so that stroke can be prevented in up to 80 percent of cases,” Dr. Jain says.

On Tuesday, Jan. 7, community members are invited to attend a free Stroke Education Series seminar, “Stroke Prevention and Other Disease Processes/Healthy Lifestyle—Be Smart and Avoid Stroke,” in order to better understand steps they can take to prevent stroke.

Make a resolution to prevent stroke

The challenge, according to Dr. Jain, is that stroke often happens suddenly with few, if any, warning signs. However, by managing health conditions that raise the risk for stroke, community members can drastically reduce their chances of stroke.

“Uncontrolled hypertension and diabetes are examples of disease processes that can significantly increase a patient’s overall risk for stroke,” Dr. Jain explains. “It’s very important for community members to learn about these and other disease processes—mainly because you cannot ‘feel’ things like if your blood pressure or blood glucose (sugar) levels are too high.”

If left unmanaged, these conditions can develop over years or decades with no outward signs, slowly eroding overall health and leaving people ripe for stroke, which, in 90 percent of cases, is caused when a blood clot travels to the brain and cuts off blood supply to affected areas of the brain.

“Over time, these disease processes cause damage to blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain,” Dr. Jain explains. “And when blood vessels—mainly arteries and arterioles—are compromised, it sets the stage for stroke to occur.”

The first step toward stroke prevention is awareness, he says. The second step is finding out what aspects of your health need to be managed.

“Once community members are aware of how these factors affect stroke risk, the only way to effectively diagnose and treat these disease processes is for them to visit their primary care physician, who can help in managing blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure. By keeping these three risk factors under control, you can greatly reduce your risk of stroke.”

Another major risk factor for stroke, according to Dr. Jain, is an irregular heartbeat, also know as an arrhythmia. In fact, up to 10 percent to 15 percent of strokes are caused by an arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation—with another 10 percent attributable to paroxysmal (occasional) atrial fibrillation. Arrhythmias, whether they are chronic or occasional, must be diligently sought out and evaluated by a physician—otherwise, they can remain undiagnosed and, hence, not treated, Dr. Jain emphasizes.

To minimize overall stroke risk, Dr. Jain advises that:

  • Fasting blood sugar is kept at less than 100.
  • Blood pressure is kept at less than 140 (systolic) over 90 (diastolic).
  • Total cholesterol is kept at less than 150.
  • At-risk patients be evaluated for an irregular heartbeat.

“If you don’t know that you’re at risk for stroke, it’s hard to prevent it. I always recommend that community members visit their physician to identify and manage both lifestyle-related and medically manageable risk factors for stroke.”

Achieving a healthy lifestyle is easier than you might think

Think you have to go to the gym for two hours a day to be fit? Worried you have to starve yourself in the new year to achieve a healthy weight? Not so, according to Doug Van Houten, R.N., clinical coordinator of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program.

“Some people think you have to become a marathon runner to be fit, but evidence suggests otherwise,” he says. “I loved this article I read in The New York Times. It said that by doing 10 to 15 repetitions of floor exercises—like jumping jacks—with 30-second breaks in between sets for a total of just 10 minutes, you’ve managed to maintain your fitness.”

The key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle—particularly during the cold, dark winter months—doesn’t require hours at the gym. It just requires moderation and planning.

“When it’s cold, raining, and dark, you can be inside and do some simple exercises for just 10 minutes to keep the process going,” he says. “The truth is that there are alternatives to what you think of as full-blown healthy lifestyle.”

To get healthy—and help prevent stroke through simple lifestyle changes—Van Houten says it’s important to plan.

“I’m glad we’ll be talking about stroke prevention and healthy lifestyle at the beginning of the year because it’s a good time to refocus. The real trick is to exercise some moderation in how you eat, plan your meals, and find any way you can to fit in extra exercise.”

By planning meals—rather than waiting until you’re starving to think about food—it’s easier to make smart choices, rather than reaching for a candy bar or bag of chips.

“You don’t have to be dramatic with your lifestyle changes to really have a good outcome. You just have to be consistent, use moderation, and find something that works for you.”

He offers these simple suggestions for fitting in a little more physical activity into your day:

  • During lunch, plan for a walk with a friend.
  • When you’re shopping, park at the end of the parking lot.
  • After dinner, take a quick walk in the neighborhood.
  • When it’s cold outside, plan for 10 minutes of rapid-fire floor exercises (jumping jacks, stepping up and down on a chair, jogging in place, etc.)
  • Take the stairs when you can and avoid the elevator.

A Healthier 2014

To learn more about how disease processes like diabetes and hypertension impact stroke risk, as well as how to make healthy lifestyle changes, attend the upcoming Free Stroke Education Series seminar focusing on prevention. The class will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 7, in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium located at 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West) in Fremont.

To register, call Health Connection at (800) 963-7070 or visit