Three weeks before her 55th birthday, my friend Lindy had a stroke. As a result, I wanted to know what causes some young women to have strokes and what risk factors exist for women of any age. Through my investigation I became more aware of how vulnerable we all are to risks that can frequently be reduced.
There are known lifestyle choices that can increase your risk for having a stroke. Some may surprise you; some you may know or suspect and could be ignoring. But even one risk factor is enough to land you in the hospital. When you combine two or more, you’re pushing the odds. I know a lot of people beat the odds, but many people don’t. Even with Lindy’s youth, strength, and determination, the road to wellness after a stroke is a challenge.
What is a stroke?
Stroke is the third leading cause of death in most
Western countries and, in many cases, it's avoidable. A
stroke is really a "brain attack" that occurs when blood
flow to the brain is interrupted by a blood clot or burst
blood vessel. This results in a lack of oxygen to the brain,
which, in turn, causes some brain cells to die. Fortunately,
healthy brain cells often take over the job of those that
have died, and recovery can be quite good — or a stroke can
leave the person with permanent damage. Depending on what
part of the brain is affected, disabilities may include
speech problems, paralysis, and even dementia.
There are several kinds of stroke. One is a hemorrhagic stroke, which results in bleeding in the brain. When this happens, the blood that accumulates in the brain may cause pressure on some of the tissues, interfering with brain activity. When the blood supply to the brain is reduced, some brain cells lose their food supply and die.
An embolism causes another type of stroke. This is the most common type, accounting for 70 to 80 percent of all strokes. It typically occurs at night or early morning when blood pressure is lowest and is frequently preceded by a mini-stroke (a transcient ischemic attack, or TIA). Embolisms occur when a blood clot or another particle that can form in a blood vessel in the heart — like a piece of arterial plaque — moves through the bloodstream and gets stuck in an artery to the brain, blocking the blood flow. Strokes can also occur if small blood clots form during rapid heartbeat (atrial fibrillation).
Stroke risk factors
Genetics: Naturopath Tori Hudson, ND, says if your father had a stroke before age 50 or your mother before age 65, you may have a genetic predisposition to stroke. While you can’t change your genetics, a genetic factor means you need to work even harder to reduce other risks.
High cholesterol is a risk, especially with low HDL (high density lipoproteins — the healthy fat). HDL helps pick up pieces of cholesterol in the blood and recycles them in the liver. So if your HDL is low, it means your body is not able to collect as much cholesterol from the plaque in your arteries. To raise your HDL, keep your animal fat intake low and your fats from fish oil, raw walnuts, and flax higher. A normal weight program and regular aerobic exercise (like walking or biking) for at least half an hour, five days a week, lowers HDL.
Smoking pretty much doubles your risk and, when combined with any other risk factor, it increases your chance for stroke more than the two combined. Breathing second-hand smoke also increases stroke risk. If anyone in your family smokes, ask them to smoke outdoors.