By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
There are several risk factors associated with cerebrovascular disease. While some of these risk factors are non-modifiable such as advancing age, male gender and previous history of stroke or heart problems, others depend on lifestyle and can be altered to reduce risk for the condition.
Factors such as smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are examples of modifiable risk factors in cerebrovascular disease.
Smoking and tobacco use
Smoking significantly raises the risk for cerbrovascular disease due to the toxins present in tobacco causing damage to the vasculature that supplies the brain. The habit also raises blood pressure. Smoking 20 cigarettes a day is thought to increase the chance of having a stroke by six times. Medications are available to help smokers stop.
High blood pressure
This is another significant risk factor for cerebrovascular disease, with hypertension raising the chance of stroke by four times over a healthy blood pressure. High blood pressure can damage blood vessels leading to the formation of a clot or aneurysm that may rupture and trigger a stroke. Exercise, healthy eating and refraining from smoking and drinking alcohol can restore blood pressure to a more normal level.
High blood cholesterol
Raised cholesterol levels can narrow the arteries and increase the risk of a blood clot. Lack of exercise and physical inactivity can raise cholesterol and need to be addressed in order to minimize the risk of cerebrovascular disease.
A diet high in saturated fat and salt can lead to risk factors for cerebrovascular disease including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and narrowed arteries. Such a diet should be change to one that is high in fibre, fruit and vegetables, low in fat and contains not more than 1 teaspoon of salt per day.
Recommended food items included oily fish, olive oil, rapeseed, nuts and avocados while examples of foods to avoid include butter, sausages, cream, cakes and lard.
Lack of exercise
A high-fat diet and lack of exercise can lead to atherosclerosis and the formation of cholesterol deposits on the inner walls of the blood vessels. These plaques can make the vessel walls hard and less pliant, restricting the flow of blood through them. Currently, guidelines recommend individuals engage in 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise such as swimming, cycling or walking every week.
The raised blood glucose levels seen in diabetes are associated with vascular damage and raise the risk for cerebrovascular disease and stroke. Type 1 diabetics should take their insulin regularly and take care to maintain their health. Type 2 diabetics should exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, although they may eventually require medication to keep their blood sugar under control.
Excessive alcohol consumption can raise cholesterol and blood pressure. Men are advised to limit their intake to within the recommended 3 to 4 units a day and women to within 2 to 3 units a day.
Stress raises the risk of high blood pressure as well as high blood glucose. Minimizing stress where possible can reduce the risk of cerebrovascular disease and stroke.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc