Given the disease burden of stroke, prevention is an important public health concern. Primary prevention is less effective than secondary prevention (as judged by the number needed to treat to prevent one stroke per year). Because stroke may indicate underlying atherosclerosis, it is important to determine the patient's risk for other cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease. Conversely, aspirin prevents against first stroke in patients who have suffered a myocardial infarction.
The most important modifiable risk factors for stroke are high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation (although magnitude of this effect is small: the evidence from the Medical Research Council trials is that 833 patients have to be treated for 1 year to prevent one stroke). Other modifiable risk factors include high blood cholesterol levels, diabetes, cigarette smoking (active and passive), heavy alcohol consumption and drug use, lack of physical activity, obesity and unhealthy diet. Alcohol use could predispose to ischemic stroke, and intracerebral and subarachnoid hemorrhage via multiple mechanisms (for example via hypertension, atrial fibrillation, rebound thrombocytosis and platelet aggregation and clotting disturbances). The drugs most commonly associated with stroke are cocaine, amphetamines causing hemorrhagic stroke, but also over-the-counter cough and cold drugs containing sympathomimetics.
No high quality studies have shown the effectiveness of interventions aimed at weight reduction, promotion of regular exercise, reducing alcohol consumption or smoking cessation. Nonetheless, given the large body of circumstantial evidence, best medical management for stroke includes advice on diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol use. Medication or drug therapy is the most common method of stroke prevention; carotid endarterectomy can be a useful surgical method of preventing stroke.
Hypertension accounts for 35-50% of stroke risk. Epidemiological studies suggest that even a small blood pressure reduction (5 to 6 mmHg systolic, 2 to 3 mmHg diastolic) would result in 40% fewer strokes. Lowering blood pressure has been conclusively shown to prevent both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes. It is equally important in secondary prevention. Even patients older than 80 years and those with isolated systolic hypertension benefit from antihypertensive therapy. Studies show that intensive antihypertensive therapy results in a greater risk reduction. The available evidence does not show large differences in stroke prevention between antihypertensive drugs —therefore, other factors such as protection against other forms of cardiovascular disease should be considered and cost.
Patients with atrial fibrillation have a risk of 5% each year to develop stroke, and this risk is even higher in those with valvular atrial fibrillation. Depending on the stroke risk, anticoagulation with medications such as coumarins or aspirin is warranted for stroke prevention.
High cholesterol levels have been inconsistently associated with (ischemic) stroke. Statins have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke by about 15%. Since earlier meta-analyses of other lipid-lowering drugs did not show a decreased risk, statins might exert their effect through mechanisms other than their lipid-lowering effects.
Oral anticoagulants such as warfarin have been the mainstay of stroke prevention for over 50 years. However, several studies have shown that aspirin and antiplatelet drugs are highly effective in secondary prevention after a stroke or transient ischemic attack. Low doses of aspirin (for example 75–150 mg) are as effective as high doses but have fewer side-effects; the lowest effective dose remains unknown. Thienopyridines (clopidogrel, ticlopidine) are modestly more effective than aspirin and have a decreased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding, but they are more expensive. Their exact role remains controversial. Ticlopidine has more skin rash, diarrhea, neutropenia and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. Low-dose aspirin is also effective for stroke prevention after sustaining a myocardial infarction.
In primary prevention however, antiplatelet drugs did not reduce the risk of ischemic stroke while increasing the risk of major bleeding. Further studies are needed to investigate a possible protective effect of aspirin against ischemic stroke in women.
Surgical procedures such as carotid endarterectomy or carotid angioplasty can be used to remove significant atherosclerotic narrowing (stenosis) of the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain. There is a large body of evidence supporting this procedure in selected cases. Carotid artery stenting has not been shown to be equally useful. Patients are selected for surgery based on age, gender, degree of stenosis, time since symptoms and patients' preferences.
Screening for carotid artery narrowing has not been shown to be a useful screening test in the general population. Studies of surgical intervention for carotid artery stenosis without symptoms have shown only a small decrease in the risk of stroke. To be beneficial, the complication rate of the surgery should be kept below 4%. Even then, for 100 surgeries, 5 patients will benefit by avoiding stroke, 3 will develop stroke despite surgery, 3 will develop stroke or die due to the surgery itself, and 89 will remain stroke-free but would also have done so without intervention.
With regards to lowering homocysteine, a meta-analysis of previous trials has concluded that lowering homocysteine with folic acid and other supplements may reduce stroke risk. However, the two largest randomized controlled trials included in the meta-analysis had conflicting results. One reported positve results; whereas the other was negative.
The European Society of Cardiology and the European Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation have developed an interactive tool for prediction and managing the risk of heart attack and stroke in Europe. HeartScore is aimed at supporting clinicians in optimising individual cardiovascular risk reduction. The Heartscore Programme is available in 12 languages and offers web based or PC version (http://www.heartscore.org).
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