Foods that prevent strokes

7 things you can do to prevent a stroke

Stroke prevention can start today. Protect yourself and avoid stroke, regardless of your age or family history.

Updated: August 22, 2018Published: June, 2013

What can you do to prevent stroke? Age makes us more susceptible to having a stroke, as does having a mother, father, or other close relative who has had a stroke.

You can’t reverse the years or change your family history, but there are many other stroke risk factors that you can control—provided that you’re aware of them. “Knowledge is power,” says Dr. Natalia Rost, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Acute Stroke Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “If you know that a particular risk factor is sabotaging your health and predisposing you to a higher risk of stroke, you can take steps to alleviate the effects of that risk.”

How to prevent stroke

Here are seven ways to start reining in your risks today to avoid stroke, before a stroke has the chance to strike.

1. Lower blood pressure

High blood pressure is a huge factor, doubling or even quadrupling your stroke risk if it is not controlled. “High blood pressure is the biggest contributor to the risk of stroke in both men and women,” Dr. Rost says. “Monitoring blood pressure and, if it is elevated, treating it, is probably the biggest difference people can make to their vascular health.”

Your ideal goal: Maintain a blood pressure of less than 135/85. But for some, a less aggressive goal (such as 140/90) may be more appropriate.

How to achieve it:

  • Reduce the salt in your diet to no more than 1,500 milligrams a day (about a half teaspoon).
  • Avoid high-cholesterol foods, such as burgers, cheese, and ice cream.
  • Eat 4 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day, one serving of fish two to three times a week, and several daily servings of whole grains and low-fat dairy.
  • Get more exercise — at least 30 minutes of activity a day, and more, if possible.
  • Quit smoking, if you smoke.

If needed, take blood pressure medicines.

2. Lose weight

Obesity, as well as the complications linked to it (including high blood pressure and diabetes), raises your odds of having a stroke. If you’re overweight, losing as little as 10 pounds can have a real impact on your stroke risk.

Your goal: While an ideal body mass index (BMI) is 25 or less, that may not be realistic for you. Work with your doctor to create a personal weight loss strategy.

How to achieve it:

  • Try to eat no more than 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day (depending on your activity level and your current BMI).
  • Increase the amount of exercise you do with activities like walking, golfing, or playing tennis, and by making activity part of every single day.

3. Exercise more

Exercise contributes to losing weight and lowering blood pressure, but it also stands on its own as an independent stroke reducer.

Your goal: Exercise at a moderate intensity at least five days a week.

How to achieve it:

  • Take a walk around your neighborhood every morning after breakfast.
  • Start a fitness club with friends.
  • When you exercise, reach the level at which you’re breathing hard, but you can still talk.
  • Take the stairs instead of an elevator when you can.
  • If you don’t have 30 consecutive minutes to exercise, break it up into 10- to 15-minute sessions a few times each day.

4. If you drink — do it in moderation

Drinking a little alcohol may decrease your risk of stroke. “Studies show that if you have about one drink per day, your risk may be lower,” says to Dr. Rost. “Once you start drinking more than two drinks per day, your risk goes up very sharply.”

Your goal: Don’t drink alcohol or do it in moderation.

How to achieve it:

  • Have no more than one glass of alcohol a day.
  • Make red wine your first choice, because it contains resveratrol, which is thought to protect the heart and brain.
  • Watch your portion sizes. A standard-sized drink is a 5-ounce glass of wine, 12-ounce beer, or 1.5-ounce glass of hard liquor.

5. Treat atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is a form of irregular heartbeat that causes clots to form in the heart. Those clots can then travel to the brain, producing a stroke. “Atrial fibrillation carries almost a fivefold risk of stroke, and should be taken seriously,” Dr. Rost says.

Your goal: If you have atrial fibrillation, get it treated.

How to achieve it:

  • If you have symptoms such as heart palpitations or shortness of breath, see your doctor for an exam.
  • You may need to take an anticoagulant drug (blood thinner) such as warfarin (Coumadin) or one of the newer direct-acting anticoagulant drugs to reduce your stroke risk from atrial fibrillation. Your doctors can guide you through this treatment.

6. Treat diabetes

Having high blood sugar damages blood vessels over time, making clots more likely to form inside them.

Your goal: Keep your blood sugar under control.

How to achieve it:

  • Monitor your blood sugar as directed by your doctor.
  • Use diet, exercise, and medicines to keep your blood sugar within the recommended range.

7. Quit smoking

Smoking accelerates clot formation in a couple of different ways. It thickens your blood, and it increases the amount of plaque buildup in the arteries. “Along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, smoking cessation is one of the most powerful lifestyle changes that will help you reduce your stroke risk significantly,” Dr. Rost says.

Your goal: Quit smoking.

How to achieve it:

  • Ask your doctor for advice on the most appropriate way for you to quit.
  • Use quit-smoking aids, such as nicotine pills or patches, counseling, or medicine.
  • Don’t give up. Most smokers need several tries to quit. See each attempt as bringing you one step closer to successfully beating the habit.

Identify a stroke F-A-S-T

Too many people ignore the signs of stroke because they question whether their symptoms are real. “My recommendation is, don’t wait if you have any unusual symptoms,” Dr. Rost advises. Listen to your body and trust your instincts. If something is off, get professional help right away.”

The National Stroke Association has created an easy acronym to help you remember, and act on, the signs of a stroke. Cut out this image and post it on your refrigerator for easy reference.

Source: National Stroke Association

Signs of a stroke include:

  • weakness on one side of the body

  • numbness of the face

  • unusual and severe headache

  • vision loss

  • numbness and tingling

  • unsteady walk.

Get the latest research and recommendations into understandable advice that can help you prevent or cope with a stroke when you get the Harvard Special Health Report Stroke: Diagnosing, treating, and recovering from a “brain attack”.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Foods That Help Stave Off Strokes After 40

According to the American Heart Association’s 2018 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics Update, someone in the U.S. has a stroke about once every 40 seconds, and a stroke accounts for 1 of every 19 deaths in the U.S. And globally, strokes rank as the second leading cause of death (behind heart disease). Though a stroke can happen at any age, your risk does increase as you get older.

These are sobering statistics, but thankfully, there are a wealth of foods out there that can help you stave off a stroke as you age. Have you ever heard of the famous Hippocrates quote, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food?” It’s time we start following that advice and eating more foods that help fight against heart attacks and strokes as best we can. However, it’s important to identify that food alone cannot prevent stroke, but you can absolutely decrease your chances of having one by making positive changes to your diet.

“No one food can prevent stroke, but people with poor eating patterns are more prone to developing a multitude of chronic diseases, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, which can increase the risk for having a stroke,” explains Erin Holley, registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a risk factor for strokes, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help with weight and blood pressure management.”

To help you get started, here are four particular minerals, antioxidants, and fatty acids that help to lower blood pressure and ward off inflammation—two key factors that help to lower your chances of having a stroke—plus the foods you should eat that are rich in them. Try integrating these 16 foods into your daily diet to help prevent a stroke as you age.


You may remember potassium as the mineral or electrolyte that fends off muscle cramps, but it can do a lot more, too. Perhaps you have experienced an excruciatingly uncomfortable Charley horse, a muscle spasm that occurs most often in the legs, and were then instructed to eat more bananas as a result. Well, as it turns out, this all-important mineral is also responsible for regulating blood pressure, says Lori Chong, registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“High blood pressure increases the risk of stroke,” she tells us. And one study found that consuming a higher intake of potassium was linked to a 24 percent risk reduction of stroke.

There are several foods that have notable amounts of potassium, so you don’t just have to rely on one fruit to get your proper serving. Here are four foods that pack more potassium than one banana. The milligrams of potassium for each food were retrieved from the United States Department of Agriculture Food Composition Databases unless noted otherwise.

Dried Apricots

The typical adult needs about 4,700 milligrams of potassium each day—the amount that’s considered adequate enough to meet nutritional standards. According to the American Heart Association, low potassium levels are attributable to high blood pressure or hypertension, which can lead to heart attack or stroke if not managed. Just one cup of dried apricots houses 1,511 milligrams of potassium, which is equivalent to 32 percent of your daily needs. For reference, a medium-sized banana contains 422 milligrams of potassium, or about 9 percent of your daily needs.


Integrating more guacamole into your diet may just help you decrease the chances of experiencing a stroke. That is, as long as you take it easy on the salt, as a high intake of sodium is a key cause of high blood pressure, which can cause a stroke. One cup of pureed avocado comprises about 1,116 milligrams of potassium, which translates to roughly 24 percent of your daily needs. Not to mention, avocados are loaded in heart-healthy fatty acids that have been shown to decrease inflammation.

Holley says avocados are high in monounsaturated fats, the type of fat that promotes the good kind of cholesterol HDL, rather than the artery-clogging one known as LDL. “Keeping your cholesterol levels at desirable levels is recommended to decrease your risk for heart disease. Avocados are also a high fiber containing fruit, providing 3 grams of fiber per 50 grams serving,” she says.

Swiss Chard

Boiling this leafy green can help you get a good amount of potassium in just one sitting. One cup of boiled Swiss chard lends 20 percent of your daily needs of the mineral.

“Swiss Chard is rich in potassium and magnesium, and these are nutrients that can help maintain a healthy blood pressure,” explains Holley. “While some people find the taste of this green to be a little bitter, a squeeze of lemon juice can help brighten up the flavor.”

Even more impressive is Swiss chard’s vitamin K content. One cup of the boiled leafy green amounts to 635 percent of a woman’s daily adequate intake (AI) of the vitamin and about 477 percent of a man’s AI. Vitamin K is essential for promoting both bone and cognitive health, and may even play a role in fending off cardiovascular disease in certain populations of people.


One medium-sized potato with the skin still intact contains just under 20 percent of your daily needs of potassium. This is more than double the amount a medium-sized banana provides! Let’s say you were really hungry and ate a large potato instead. That would get you one-third of your daily needs of the mineral. Add more potatoes into your weekly meal prep to maintain healthy potassium levels to steer clear of high blood pressure and, ultimately, a stroke.


Magnesium is a trace mineral that’s important for myriad reasons, including keeping bones strong, facilitating nerve impulses, and even preventing stroke. In fact, according to a handful of studies, the conclusion was made that higher magnesium intake is associated with a reduced risk of stroke. Even more, Chong adds that magnesium is also “helpful for regulating muscle contraction and keeping a regular heart rhythm.” Here are four such foods that are chock-full of magnesium. The milligrams of magnesium for each food were retrieved from the United States Department of Agriculture Food Composition Databases unless noted otherwise.


Only one ounce of these nuts contains about 74 milligrams, which is 23 percent of a woman’s recommended dietary allowance of magnesium and about 18 percent for men. Cashews happen to be one of the top sources for magnesium, according to the National Institutes of Health. Luckily, cashews can truly enhance a recipe (we like them in a maple-cashew apple toast recipe). Whether it be something savory like a stir-fry of vegetables and rice or as a garnish to something sweet like a yogurt parfait, it’s not hard to implement this food into your daily meals.


We all know that spinach is a healthy vegetable. In fact, when eaten in tandem with dairy, the body is able to absorb a specific heart-healthy antioxidant found in spinach, which has been known to lessen inflammation and prevent cardiovascular disease if eaten over time. “This nutrient-rich vegetable is packed with carotenoids, vitamin K, folate, calcium, and iron,” says Holley. “Spinach also has a high amount of fiber—2.4 grams per 100 gram serving—which is known to lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.”

Aside from this antioxidant and the other handful of vitamins and minerals spinach contains, the leafy green is also full of magnesium. One cup of boiled spinach contains 157 milligrams, which is nearly 50 percent of the recommended dietary allowance of magnesium for women and 37 percent for men.

RELATED: Your guide to the anti-inflammatory diet that heals your gut, slows the signs of aging, and helps you lose weight.

Pumpkin Seeds

Pumpkin seeds are another food that’s full of magnesium. Just one ounce of these dried seeds gives you 168 milligrams worth of the mineral, satisfying about 53 percent of the daily need for women and roughly 40 percent for men. But that’s not the only notable nutrient it packs.

“These small little seeds are chock-full of nutrition, such as protein, magnesium, potassium, and polyunsaturated fats. They naturally contain antioxidants, which can help to reduce inflammation and therefore reduce risk of stroke, heart disease, cancer,” says Holley. “They’re also an excellent source of fiber, which can help to balance blood sugar and reduce complications of diabetes, along with promoting gut health.”

Dark Chocolate

What if we told you that consuming up to six servings of dark chocolate a week could lessen your chances of developing coronary heart disease, diabetes, and having a stroke? According to a study in Nutrients, it’s very possible. Perhaps dark chocolate’s high magnesium content is to thank—per one ounce, dark chocolate (the 70-85 percent cacao solids kind) provides 20 percent of the recommended dietary allowance for women and 15 percent for men.

“Dark chocolate contains higher levels of antioxidants, fiber, iron, magnesium, and other trace minerals,” adds Holley. “Phytochemicals in dark chocolate can help to open blood vessels and reduce blood pressure. Remember that dark chocolate can still contain added sugars, so be mindful with portion sizes.” When eaten in small amounts, dark chocolate can quite actually be a life-saver.


“Lycopene is a phytonutrient in the carotenoid family. It, as well as the other carotenoids, have strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory benefits,” says Chong. You can generally tell when a fruit or vegetable has a good source of lycopene in it by its color—lycopene is what gives these foods their statement pink or red pigment. This antioxidant has been shown to reduce the chances of experiencing a stroke. An analysis published in Neurology found that men between the ages of 46 and 65 and with the highest lycopene concentrations were between 55 and 59 percent less likely to endure a stroke.

Sun-dried Tomatoes

Just under one cup of savory sun-dried tomatoes contains about 45.9 milligrams of the antioxidant, and while there isn’t a recommended dietary allowance yet established for lycopene, know that any dish with tomatoes in it has a good source of the antioxidant. According to a study, consuming between 9 and 21 milligrams per day was enough to decrease a male’s chances of getting prostate cancer. There’s a reason why sun-dried tomatoes are so chockfull of antioxidants and other nutrients.

“Sun-dried tomatoes are ripe tomatoes that have lost the majority of their water content after drying time in the sun—this concentrates their flavor and nutrients,” says Holley. “If using sun-dried tomatoes that are packed in oil, keep in mind these can be higher in calories than fresh vegetables.”


About 100 grams of this tropical fruit contains 5.2 milligrams of lycopene. It adds a vibrant hue to a fruit-topped salad, so consider adding it to your office lunch!


Watermelon is another lycopene-filled fruit. (Couldn’t you guess by its pigment?) According to a study in the American Journal of Hypertension, those who had prehypertension and ate watermelon ended up reducing their blood pressure. As we stated earlier, high blood pressure is correlated with stroke.

Pink Grapefruit

Grapefruit is also loaded in the antioxidant lycopene. Not a tart fan? Slice open one of these fruits and throw it under the broiler to caramelize it and help cut back on the bitter flavor.


Omega-3 fatty acids help to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, both of which are capable of causing a stroke if elevated for years on end. According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, eating fish that provides a good source of omega-3 fats once or twice a week may reduce the risk of stroke, as well as other cognitive complications, including depression and even Alzheimer’s disease. Chong says the foods we have provided below are also good sources of selenium and zinc, all of which have antioxidant capabilities.


There is a lot of research behind salmon and its ability to prevent to the onset of both heart disease and heart disease-related incidents such as heart attack and stroke, and even cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Omega-3 fatty acids are an anti-inflammatory agent that works to clear plaque in the brain and in the arteries, especially those near the heart, Holley confirms.

“Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids and is a known anti-inflammatory food and may protect the brain and nerves,” she says. “Reducing inflammation can help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and therefore reduce the risk of stroke. It is recommended that we consume 2-3 servings a week of fatty fish, such as salmon, to obtain healthy omega 3 fats in our diet. And research suggests that it’s best to consume fish versus taking supplements.”


These seeds may be small, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t packed with heart-healthy vitamins and minerals. Flaxseeds are a good plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. According to a study, those who consumed omega-3 fatty acids for eight weeks had significantly lower blood pressure than those in the study who took the placebo.


Not only are oysters a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, but they’re also loaded in zinc. In fact, in just six medium-sized oysters, there are 77 milligrams of zinc, which is well past the recommended dietary allowance for men of 11 milligrams and for women at just 8 milligrams.


You can find a good source of omega-3 fats in just one ounce of walnuts (which is about seven nuts). “Over the years there have been several studies that have linked nut intake with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Walnuts, in particular, contain polyunsaturated fats, including alpha-linoleic acid,” says Holley. “This type of omega-3 fatty acid can help with inflammation.” Sprinkle a handful atop your salad for a heart-healthy boost, or keep some in a reusable container for a midday snack!

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Heart attack

High blood pressure

Persistent high blood pressure (hypertension) can put extra strain on your arteries and heart, increasing your risk of a heart attack.

High blood pressure can often be reduced by eating a healthy diet, moderating your alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight and doing regular exercise.

Diet and high blood pressure

The advice on eating a healthy, balanced diet also applies if you have high blood pressure. In addition, cut down on the amount of salt in your food.

Salt raises blood pressure. The more salt you eat, the higher your blood pressure. You should aim to eat less than 6g of salt a day (2.4g sodium) – that’s around 1 teaspoonful.

Find out how to cut down on salt.

Eating a low-fat diet that includes lots of fibre – such as wholegrain rice, bread, pasta and plenty of fruit and vegetables – has been proven to help lower blood pressure. Fruit and vegetables also contain vital vitamins and minerals and help keep your body healthy.

You should aim to eat 5 portions of fruit and vegetables every day.

Find out more about getting your 5 A Day.


If you drink alcohol, do not exceed the recommended limits:

  • men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week
  • spread your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week

14 units is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer, or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.

Find out more about alcohol units.

Regularly exceeding the recommended alcohol limits raises your blood pressure and cholesterol level, increasing your risk of a heart attack.

Avoid binge drinking, which is drinking lots of alcohol in a short space of time or drinking to get drunk.

Binge drinking can cause a sudden and large rise in your blood pressure, which could be potentially dangerous.

Research has found people who have had a heart attack and continue to binge drink are twice as likely to die from a serious health condition, such as another heart attack or stroke, compared with people who moderate their drinking after having a heart attack.

Find tips for cutting down on alcohol.

Contact your GP if you find it difficult to moderate your drinking. Counselling services and medicines can help you reduce your alcohol intake.

Find out more about alcohol support.


Being overweight forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around your body, which can raise your blood pressure. Use the BMI healthy weight calculator to find out if you are a healthy weight for your height.

If you do need to lose weight, remember that losing just a few kilos will make a positive difference to your blood pressure and health.

Find out more about how to start losing weight.


Being active and doing regular exercise will lower your blood pressure by keeping your heart and blood vessels in good condition. Regular exercise can also help you lose weight, which will help to lower your blood pressure.

Low-impact activities such as walking, swimming and cycling are recommended. More strenuous activities, such as playing football and squash, may not be suitable for you. Check with the doctor in charge of your care.

Find out more about the benefits of walking, swimming for fitness and how to start cycling.

Stroke kills about 5 million people worldwide per year. It’s the leading cause of permanent disability in the U.S. And it’s a rapidly growing threat for middle-aged women in particular.

But if you want to prevent yourself and those you love from getting a stroke, there’s good news…

Basic lifestyle changes can have a big impact in reducing stroke risk. In fact, according to research, stroke is 80% preventable by addressing lifestyle factors, including improving diet, stopping smoking, and getting regular exercise.

The Best Way to Avoid Stroke Is By Improving Your Diet

According to Food Revolution expert Michael Greger, MD, the best way to avoid suffering from a stroke is to eat a whole food, plant-based diet centered around vegetables, lentils, beans, seeds, whole grains, fruits, and nuts.

But to get the full benefits, plant-strong eaters must have a regular, reliable source of B12 — meaning B12-fortified foods or supplements.

Why Do Plant-Based Diets Lower The Risk of Stroke?

One reason why plant-based diets protect against stroke is due to the fiber found in whole plant foods.

Studies find that for every seven grams of fiber you eat per day, you get nearly a 7% drop in the risk of first-time stroke. But less than 3% of Americans meet the minimum daily recommendation for fiber.

Plant foods are also filled with antioxidants. Antioxidant-packed foods help reduce inflammation and prevent plaque buildup in the arteries, and they also improve blood flow.

In a study of more than 30,000 older women over a period of 12 years, those who ate the most antioxidant-rich foods had the lowest stroke risk. (However, choosing antioxidant supplements didn’t appear to help.)

On average, plant foods contain 64 times more antioxidants than animal foods. But you should always strive for a variety of fruits, veggies, herbs, and spices at every meal, so you can continuously flood your body with a wide range of antioxidants.

What The Science Says About The Best Foods to Prevent Stroke


In one study, adding an ounce of nuts per day seemed to cut the risk of stroke in half.

In the U.S. alone, this could prevent 89,000 strokes per year.


According to studies led by Harvard researchers, greens turned out to be associated with the strongest protection against major chronic diseases, including a 20% reduction for strokes (and heart disease) for every additional serving.


According to population studies that followed people over time, those who ate chocolate appeared to have lower rates of stroke.

But the sugar and dairy that come with most types of chocolate aren’t linked to positive health outcomes, so dark chocolate with high cacao content is the best choice.

Citrus fruits

Citrus intake has been associated with lower stroke risk.

According to a study of 70,000 women published in the journal Stroke, women who consumed the most flavonoids from citrus fruits over a 14-year period had a 19% lower risk of stroke than women who consumed the fewest.

Whole grains

Eating whole grains has been found to be associated with a reduced risk of stroke.

In his book How Not to Die, Dr. Greger recommends at least 3 servings of whole grains each day for stroke prevention.


Garlic is a great choice for reducing stroke risk.

A human study found that regular garlic consumption resulted in a 50% reduction in rates of stroke.


High levels of lycopene, which is found in tomatoes, may be associated with a significantly reduced risk of stroke.

According to an analysis published in Neurology, which followed more than 1,000 Finnish men aged 46 to 55, those with the highest lycopene levels were 55% less likely to have a stroke.

Coffee and green tea

The results of a 13-year study of more than 80,000 Japanese adults found that those who drank at least one cup of coffee a day had a 20% reduced risk of stroke.

And those who drank 2 to 3 cups of green tea daily had a 14% reduced risk of stroke.

Potassium-rich foods

Eating more potassium-rich foods is associated with a significantly lower stroke risk.

In one study, a 1,600 milligrams per day increase in potassium intake was associated with a 21% lower stroke risk — and this amount didn’t even bring many study participants to the minimum daily recommendations.

But less than 2% of Americans reach the daily potassium intake because most people don’t eat enough unprocessed plant foods.

Potassium is abundant in fruits and vegetables. Greens, beans, and sweet potatoes are excellent sources of potassium.

Magnesium-rich foods

According to a meta-analysis of studies, higher magnesium intake is associated with a reduced risk of stroke.

Beans, leafy greens, and whole grains are all loaded with magnesium.

Foods to Avoid If You Want to Avoid Stroke

The standard Western diet has been found to be associated with a 58% increase in stroke risk.

Studies indicate that it is particularly important to reduce your intake of the following foods:

  • High cholesterol foods
  • Salty foods
  • Dairy

Uric acid is a compound produced by your body when it breaks down certain foods. Too little uric acid is associated with stroke.

People on dairy-free plant-strong diets are most likely to hit the sweet spot in terms of optimal uric acid levels for longevity. So this is one of the reasons limiting or cutting out dairy can help reduce your risk of stroke.


A meta-analysis on meat found a 10% increased risk of stroke associated with each three-and-a-half-ounce daily portion of red and processed meat.

The heme iron in meat has also been found to be associated with stroke risk, while no association was found between the non-heme iron in plants and stroke.

Another factor may be the toxic pollutants, like PCBs, that can build up in animal fats. People with the highest levels of these pollutants in their bloodstream increase their odds of stroke by as much as eight or nine times.

Diet soda

Research presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference showed that people who drink just one diet soda a day may increase their risk of stroke by 48%.

Other Lifestyle Factors to Help Prevent Stroke From Happening to You

Exercise is medicine, and regular exercise can help you prevent stroke. In fact, researchers at the London School, Harvard, and Stanford found that exercise worked just as well as drugs for stroke (and heart disease) treatment.

But how much exercise do you need? Most health and fitness organizations advocate walking an hour 5 days a week.

Weight Loss

If you’re overweight, even losing 10 pounds can have a substantial impact on your stroke risk.

Optimal Sleep

If you want to reduce your risk of stroke, getting the optimal amount of sleep regularly is important.

Researchers at the University of Alabama found a strong link between getting less than six hours of sleep and a greater incidence of stroke symptoms for people over 45.


According to scientists at Harvard University, people with sunny dispositions are far less likely to suffer from strokes or heart attacks.

Studies found a 50% reduction in cardiovascular disease for those who scored highest for optimism and vitality.

Vitamin D

Low levels of vitamin D increase your risk of risk. According to one study, low levels of vitamin D doubles the risk of stroke in Caucasians.

You can increase your vitamin D levels with exposure to sun, supplementation, or by eating vitamin D-fortified foods.

The Bottom Line

Strokes typically occur without any warning at all, so prevention is critical.

If you want to avoid suffering from stroke, consuming a variety of whole, plant-based foods and eating fewer animal products and processed foods, along with exercise, getting enough sleep, releasing excess weight, and staying positive can go a long way in helping you achieve this goal.

And if you have high blood pressure, these foods may be able to help you.

Tell us in the comments:

  • How do you use food and other lifestyle practices to prevent stroke?

Brain Basics: Preventing Stroke

What is a Stroke?
What are Warning Signs of a Stroke?
What are Risk Factors for a Stroke?
What Are the Treatable Risk Factors?
Do You Know Your Stroke Risk?


If you’re like most Americans, you plan your future. When you take a job, you examine its benefit plan. When you buy a home, you consider its location and condition so that your investment is safe. Today, more and more Americans are protecting their most important asset—their brain. Are you?

Stroke ranks as the fourth leading killer in the United States. A stroke can be devastating to individuals and their families, robbing them of their independence. It is the most common cause of adult disability. Each year approximately 795,000 Americans have a stroke, with about 160,000 dying from stroke-related causes. Officials at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) are committed to reducing that burden through biomedical research.

What is a Stroke?

A stroke, or “brain attack,” occurs when blood circulation to the brain fails. Brain cells can die from decreased blood flow and the resulting lack of oxygen. There are two broad categories of stroke: those caused by a blockage of blood flow and those caused by bleeding into the brain. A blockage of a blood vessel in the brain or neck, called an ischemic stroke, is the most frequent cause of stroke and is responsible for about 80 percent of strokes. These blockages stem from three conditions: the formation of a clot within a blood vessel of the brain or neck, called thrombosis; the movement of a clot from another part of the body such as the heart to the brain, called embolism; or a severe narrowing of an artery in or leading to the brain, called stenosis. Bleeding into the brain or the spaces surrounding the brain causes the second type of stroke, called hemorrhagic stroke.

Two key steps you can take will lower your risk of death or disability from stroke: control stroke’s risk factors and know stroke’s warning signs. Scientific research conducted by the NINDS has identified warning signs and a large number of risk factors.

What are Warning Signs of a Stroke?

Warning signs are clues your body sends that your brain is not receiving enough oxygen. If you observe one or more of these signs of a stroke or “brain attack,” don’t wait, call a doctor or 911 right away!

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, or trouble talking or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Other danger signs that may occur include double vision, drowsiness, and nausea or vomiting. Sometimes the warning signs may last only a few moments and then disappear. These brief episodes, known as transient ischemic attacks or TIAs, are sometimes called “mini-strokes.” Although brief, they identify an underlying serious condition that isn’t going away without medical help. Unfortunately, since they clear up, many people ignore them. Don’t. Paying attention to them can save your life.

What are Risk Factors for a Stroke?

A risk factor is a condition or behavior that occurs more frequently in those who have, or are at greater risk of getting, a disease than in those who don’t. Having a risk factor for stroke doesn’t mean you’ll have a stroke. On the other hand, not having a risk factor doesn’t mean you’ll avoid a stroke. But your risk of stroke grows as the number and severity of risk factors increases.

Some factors for stroke can’t be modified by medical treatment or lifestyle changes.

  • Age. Stroke occurs in all age groups. Studies show the risk of stroke doubles for each decade between the ages of 55 and 85. But strokes also can occur in childhood or adolescence. Although stroke is often considered a disease of aging, the risk of stroke in childhood is actually highest during the perinatal period, which encompasses the last few months of fetal life and the first few weeks after birth.
  • Gender. Men have a higher risk for stroke in young and middle age, but rates even out at older ages, and more women die from stroke. Men generally do not live as long as women, so men are usually younger when they have their strokes and therefore have a higher rate of survival.
  • Race. People from certain ethnic groups have a higher risk of stroke. For African Americans, stroke is more common and more deadly—even in young and middle-aged adults—than for any ethnic or other racial group in the United States. Studies show that the age-adjusted incidence of stroke is about twice as high in African Americans and Hispanic Americans as in Caucasians, and while stroke incidence has declined for whites since the 1990s, there has not been a decline for Hispanics or black Americans. An important risk factor for African-Americans is sickle cell disease, which can cause a narrowing of arteries and disrupt blood flow. The incidence of the various stroke subtypes also varies considerably in different ethnic groups.
  • Family history of stroke. Stroke seems to run in some families. Several factors may contribute to familial stroke. Members of a family might have a genetic tendency for stroke risk factors, such as an inherited predisposition for high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes. The influence of a common lifestyle among family members also could contribute to familial stroke.

What Are the Treatable Risk Factors?

Some of the most important treatable risk factors for stroke are:

  • High blood pressure, or hypertension.
    Hypertension is by far the most potent risk factor for stroke. Hypertension causes a two-to four-fold increase in the risk of stroke before age 80. If your blood pressure is high, you and your doctor need to work out an individual strategy to bring it down to the normal range. Some ways that work: Maintain proper weight. Avoid drugs known to raise blood pressure. Eat right: cut down on salt and eat fruits and vegetables to increase potassium in your diet. Exercise more. Your doctor may prescribe medicines that help lower blood pressure. Controlling blood pressure will also help you avoid heart disease, diabetes, and kidney failure.
  • Cigarette smoking.
    Cigarette smoking causes about a two-fold increase in the risk of ischemic stroke and up to a four-fold increase in the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. It has been linked to the buildup of fatty substances (atherosclerosis) in the carotid artery, the main neck artery supplying blood to the brain. Blockage of this artery is the leading cause of stroke in Americans. Also, nicotine raises blood pressure; carbon monoxide from smoking reduces the amount of oxygen your blood can carry to the brain; and cigarette smoke makes your blood thicker and more likely to clot. Smoking also promotes aneurysm formation. Your doctor can recommend programs and medications that may help you quit smoking. By quitting, at any age, you also reduce your risk of lung disease, heart disease, and a number of cancers including lung cancer.

  • Heart disease.
    Common heart disorders such as coronary artery disease, valve defects, irregular heart beat (atrial fibrillation), and enlargement of one of the heart’s chambers can result in blood clots that may break loose and block vessels in or leading to the brain. Atrial fibrillation—which is more prevalent in older people—is responsible for one in four strokes after age 80, and is associated with higher mortality and disability. The most common blood vessel disease is atherosclerosis. Hypertension promotes atherosclerosis and causes mechanical damage to the walls of blood vessels. Your doctor will treat your heart disease and may also prescribe medication, such as aspirin, to help prevent the formation of clots. Your doctor may recommend surgery to clean out a clogged neck artery if you match a particular risk profile. If you are over 50, NINDS scientists believe you and your doctor should make a decision about aspirin therapy. A doctor can evaluate your risk factors and help you decide if you will benefit from aspirin or other blood-thinning therapy.

  • Warning signs or history of TIA or stroke.
    If you experience a TIA, get help at once. If you’ve previously had a TIA or stroke, your risk of having a stroke is many times greater than someone who has never had one. Many communities encourage those with stroke’s warning signs to dial 911 for emergency medical assistance. If you have had a stroke in the past, it’s important to reduce your risk of a second stroke. Your brain helps you recover from a stroke by asking the unaffected brain regions to do double duty. That means a second stroke can be twice as bad.

  • Diabetes.
    In terms of stroke and cardiovascular disease, having diabetes is the equivalent of aging 15 years. You may think this disorder affects only the body’s ability to use sugar, or glucose. But it also causes destructive changes in the blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain. Also, if blood glucose levels are high at the time of a stroke, then brain damage is usually more severe and extensive than when blood glucose is well-controlled. Hypertension is common among diabetics and accounts for much of their increased stroke risk. Treating diabetes can delay the onset of complications that increase the risk of stroke.

  • Cholesterol imbalance.
    Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) carries cholesterol (a fatty substance) through the blood and delivers it to cells. Excess LDL can cause cholesterol to build up in blood vessels, leading to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the major cause of blood vessel narrowing, leading to both heart attack and stroke.
  • Physical inactivity and obesity.
    Obesity and inactivity are associated with hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Waist circumference to hip circumference ratio equal to or above the mid-value for the population increases the risk of ischemic stroke three-fold.

Do You Know Your Stroke Risk?

Some of the most important risk factors for stroke can be determined during a physical exam at your doctor’s office. If you are over 55 years old, the worksheet in this pamphlet can help you estimate your risk of stroke and show the benefit of risk factor control.

The worksheet was developed from NINDS-supported work in the well-known Framingham Study. Working with your doctor, you can develop a strategy to lower your risk to average or even below average for your age.

Many risk factors for stroke can be managed, some very successfully. Although risk is never zero at any age, by starting early and controlling your risk factors you can lower your risk of death or disability from stroke. With good control, the risk of stroke in most age groups can be kept below that for accidental injury or death.

Americans have shown that stroke is preventable and treatable. In recent years, a better understanding of the causes of stroke has helped Americans make lifestyle changes that have cut the stroke death rate nearly in half.

Scientists at the NINDS predict that, with continued attention to reducing the risks of stroke and by using currently available therapies and developing new ones, Americans should be able to prevent 80 percent of all strokes.

Score your stroke risk for the next 10 years-MEN

Key: SBP = systolic blood pressure (score one line only, untreated or treated); ; Diabetes = history of diabetes;Cigarettes = smokes cigarettes; CVD (cardiovascular disease) = history of heart disease; AF = history of atrial fibrillation;LVH = diagnosis of left ventricular hypertrophy

Compare with Your Age Group Average 10-Year Probability of Stroke
55-59 5.9%
60-64 7.8%
65-69 11.0%
70-74 13.7%
75-79 18.0%
80-84 22.3%

Score your stroke risk for the next 10 years-WOMEN

Key: SBP = systolic blood pressure (score one line only, untreated or treated); ; Diabetes = history of diabetes;Cigarettes = smokes cigarettes; CVD (cardiovascular disease) = history of heart disease; AF = history of atrial fibrillation;LVH = diagnosis of left ventricular hypertrophy

Compare with Your Age Group Average 10-Year Probability of Stroke
55-59 3.0%
60-64 4.7%
65-69 7.2%
70-74 10.9%
75-79 15.5%
80-84 23.9%

This example helps you assess your risk of stroke. Tally your points to score your stroke risk over the next 10 years.

Martha, age 65, wanted to determine her risk for having a stroke, so she took this stroke risk profile. This is how she arrived at her 10-year probability risk for having a stroke:

Age 65

4 points

SBP – treated, 107-113

2 points

Diabetes – No

0 points

Cigarettes – Yes

3 points

CVD – No

0 points

AF – Yes

6 points

LVH – No

0 points


15 points

15 points carries a 16 percent, 10-year probability of having a stroke. If Martha quits smoking she can reduce her points to 12, which carries a 9 percent, 10-year probability of having a stroke.

Her current point total does not mean Martha will have a stroke, but serves as a wake-up call to ways she can lower her risk or even prevent a stroke. A lower percent score doesn’t mean that Martha won’t have a stroke, only that she is at a lower risk of having one.

No matter what your score is, it is important to work on reducing your risk factors as Martha did in this example by quitting smoking.

Many risk factors for stroke can be managed, some very successfully. Although risk is never zero at any age, by starting early and controlling your risk factors you can lower your risk of death or disability from stroke. With good control, the risk of stroke in most age groups can be kept below that for accidental injury or death.

Americans have shown that stroke is preventable and treatable. In recent years, a better understanding of the causes of stroke has helped Americans make lifestyle changes that have cut the stroke death rate nearly in half.

Scientists at the NINDS predict that, with continued attention to reducing the risks of stroke and by using currently available therapies and developing new ones, Americans should be able to prevent 80 percent of all strokes.

More information on stroke

Related NINDS Publications and Information

NIH Publication No. 11-3440b

Prepared by: Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892

NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient’s medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

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