Strokes can happen to anyone, at any age, and they don’t stop because of a pandemic. About 1 in 4 people worldwide have a stroke – it’s the world’s No. 2 killer and a leading cause of disability – but up to 80% may be prevented.
Much of what puts you at risk for stroke, including uncontrolled high blood pressure, smoking or obesity, also increases your risk for complications due to COVID-19. That’s why the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association, is emphasizing the importance of preventing stroke by controlling high blood pressure, the leading preventable cause of stroke.
About half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, and only 25% have it under control.
“Checking your blood pressure regularly and getting it to a healthy range is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of stroke,” said Dr. Mitchell S. V. Elkind, president of the American Heart Association and professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University.
Changing your daily habits and diet can reduce stroke risk, but there are other important risk factors.
“Structural racism and other forms of discrimination make it more difficult for Black, Hispanics, Indigenous people, LGBT and other marginalized people to access the tools they need to fully control their risk factors for stroke,” Elkind said.
There is growing evidence that historically marginalized groups in the U.S. live with increased stress and reduced access to health care, socioeconomic and psychological resources. As a result, up to 40% of Black adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure and Black people who have a stroke are more than twice as likely to die from it than white people.
“At the American Stroke Association and American Heart Association, we’re working with individuals, organizations, businesses and government to address the root causes of these inequities to ensure longer, healthier lives for all,” said Elkind. “It will take all of us coming together to make change at individual and structural levels.”
One way anyone can make change is by joining the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association’s “EmPOWERED to Serve” effort, which focuses on driving change through health justice and empowerment in individual communities.
In addition to managing your own risks, Elkind and the ASA advise all people to be ready to save a life by remembering the most common stroke warning signs using the acronym FAST – F for face drooping, A for arm weakness, S for speech difficulty and T for time to call 911.
“Getting emergency medical treatment for a stroke is safe, even during the pandemic,” Elkind said. “Calling 911 helps treatment start even before you reach the hospital, improving chances for a better recovery.”
Controlling high blood pressure
These tips can help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range (120/80) and lower your stroke risk:
Build a support system. Work with your doctor and other health care professionals to manage your blood pressure through lifestyle changes and/or medication.
Take medications as prescribed. If you have been prescribed blood pressure medications, take them as prescribed. Check the labels on over-the-counter cold or flu medications, as some may elevate your blood pressure.
Eat colorful fruits and veggies. A heart-healthy diet may help lower blood pressure over time.
Rest up. Getting seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night can improve brain function.
Address other medical issues. Breathing problems may increase stroke risk, so seek treatment right away if you suspect sleep apnea or a similar problem.
Reduce stress. Practicing mindfulness and being aware of your breathing may significantly reduce blood pressure.
Be active. Adults should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (or a combination). Two days per week of moderate- to high-intensity muscle strengthening activity is also recommended.