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When you think of a stroke survivor, you likely imagine an older person with lots of previous health problems.  These days, however, that picture is changing.  The mounting obesity epidemic in the United States has contributed to an increase in the number of strokes occurring among younger Americans, according to the American Stroke Association .  The biggest increase was among men ages 15-34; stokes increased in this group by 51%!  Strokes rose among woman in this age group as well, but not as dramatically (17%).   Doctors throughout the country are seeing more strokes related to high blood pressure and clogged arteries in the younger population.  Other risk factors include smoking, obesity, alcohol overuse and diabetes.  

 Surprisingly, the prevalence of strokes is decreasing in the elderly; strokes dropped 25% among men (age 65 and older) and 28% among women (age 65 and older).  Doctors believe this decrease is due to increased awareness, prevention and treatment in this age group 

So while it’s fantastic that we are seeing fewer strokes in the elderly, it seems crucial that we start cutting risk factors to prevent strokes in younger people.  

One of the largest risk factors for stroke is high blood pressure.  People who have hypertension increase their risk for a stroke 4 to 6 times more than those with normal blood pressure.  According to studies, almost two thirds of people suffering from obesity are at risk for hypertension.  Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your chances of having elevated blood pressure, therefore reducing the risk for a stroke.   Speak to your doctor to be sure you know if you have high or borderline high blood pressure.  It is always best to treat a problem when it is at its earliest (and most treatable) stage.  Many doctors wait until patients have true hypertension before bringing it to a patient’s attention, especially when the patient is young.  Don’t wait for your doctor to raise the subject; knowledge is power.

The second most powerful risk factor for a stroke is heart disease.  High cholesterol levels contribute to heart disease which in turn increases risk of a stroke.  Foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, like meats, eggs and dairy products, can increase the amount of total cholesterol in the body.  A total cholesterol level of less than 200 is considered safe while a level of more than 240 is considered dangerous and places a person at risk for heart disease.   Kids should have a fasting cholesterol level of less than 170.   It is best to choose low-fat dairy products and limit consumption of eggs and red meat to achieve this.  Increasing exercise is also a good way to help lower cholesterol levels.  Again, ask your doctor for your numbers and start watching your diet if you see your numbers start to creep up.

Diabetes is another disease that increases a person’s risk for stroke.  People with diabetes have three times the risk of stroke compared to people without the disease. If left uncontrolled, over time the high glucose levels damage nerves and blood vessels leading to a stroke.  This is why it is so important to monitor blood glucose levels, maintain a healthy weight and exercise to help keep diabetes in good control.  Even better, keep your weight in check from the beginning to prevent diabetes from developing in the first place.

Strokes, while common, are also preventable.  Risk factors for stroke are closely related to obesity.  Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is more important than ever.  Exercise, eat healthy, and visit your doctor regularly to decrease your chances of having a stroke.  

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