May is American Stroke Month, in which clinicians and patients are urged to take action, spread the word, and work “together to end stroke, before it even happens.” Rates of this devastating condition (also known as “brain attack”) are rising in younger adults, with the biggest surge in people ages 35 to 44, according to a new study published in JAMA Neurology. The researchers also report that the proportion of people with at least three major risk factors for stroke has gone up in all age groups, and nearly doubled in people ages 35 to 44.

Every year, 795,000 Americans have strokes–and for one out of four of them, it’s a repeat event. Yet regardless of your age or family history, strokes are preventable! Large studies show that an optimal lifestyle can cut stroke risk up to 90%, making it more powerful than any medication or surgery ever invented! Here are five things you can do to live well and stroke free.

  1. Exercise regularly. Compared to people who work out four or more times a week, those who are sedentary are 20% more likely to suffer a stroke or mini-stroke (also known as a transient ischemic attack or TIA), according to a study of 30,239 adults of diverse ethnicities, ages 45 or older. The BaleDoneen Method recommends getting 22 minutes (or more) a day of aerobic exercise, such as jogging, biking, swimming or brisk walking. Check with your medical provider before starting a new exercise program to make sure it’s right for you.
  2. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Consuming more produce could add years to your life, according to an analysis of studies that included about 2 million people worldwide. Those who ate the most fruit and veggies (about 1.7 pounds daily) cut their risk for stroke by 16%, risk for heart disease by 28%, risk for cancer by 13%, and risk for early death by 27%, compared to those who ate the least produce. As discussed more fully in the BaleDoneen book Beat the Heart Attack Gene, we use genetic tests to identify the best diet for each patient.
  3. Avoid nicotine and secondhand smoke. Every year, secondhand smoke causes more than 8,000 deaths from stroke, while smoking (and other types of nicotine use, such as vaping or chewing tobacco) causes one in three deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD): plaque in the arteries that can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Smoking makes blood stickier and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart (triggering a heart attack) or the brain (leading to a stroke).
  4. Slim down, particularly around the middle. Stroke risk is lowest for people with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less (a weight of 141 pounds or less for an average 5’3” woman or 169 or less for a 5’ 9” man).  Even if your BMI is in the healthy range, large studies show that having a waistline above 35 inches for a woman or above 40 inches for a man can more than double risk for CVD. Interval training (alternating short bursts of higher intensity exercise with intervals of lighter activity) is an excellent way to shed pounds and flatten your belly, studies suggest.
  5. Take great care of your teeth. As a landmark BaleDoneen study recently discovered, gum disease due to certain high-risk oral bacteria can actually cause CVD.  These findings were further confirmed by a new study by U.S. and Japanese researchers linking oral bacteria to several kinds of stroke, including brain bleeding that can lead to dementia. Saliva tests to check for high-risk oral bacteria through DNA analysis are available from OralDNA, OraVital, and Hain Diagnostics. Talk to your dental provider about the best way to optimize your oral–and arterial–health.