Q: If a stroke can strike anyone, how important are lifestyle changes to reduce the risk factors?

A: People I treat often don’t want to believe that they are having a stroke, even as they are actively exhibiting the physical symptoms. Often this denial happens because they think they are too young to have a stroke – as if that is something for their grandparents to worry about. However, we are seeing younger patients for stroke — as young as late 20s. Stroke can strike anyone. Regular visits to a primary-care provider to evaluate your overall health are important. Your doctor can identify what diseases you are at risk for due to genetic factors or the lifestyle choices you make every day.

Many risk factors and combinations of medical conditions increase the chances of suffering ischemic or hemorrhagic strokes or developing intracranial aneurysms. Controlling those risk factors and making healthier lifestyle choices can help people reduce the likelihood of strokes and intracranial aneurysms.

The first risk factor is high blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes. It can also substantially increase the risk of rupture for intracranial aneurysms.

Lifestyle choices can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and other health conditions associated with cardiovascular disease. This includes maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. You should also avoid high cholesterol, saturated fats, and excessive salt. Exercise regularly. These lifestyle choices will also greatly contribute to preventing strokes and aneurysms. It is crucial for people with chronic high blood pressure to keep it under control by regularly visiting a doctor and following their treatment recommendations.

Diabetes is also a risk factor for strokes and another disease process closely related to high blood pressure. The same healthy lifestyle choices mentioned above apply to reducing the risk of developing diabetes. Combined with appropriate medical treatment of diabetes, lifestyle changes will reduce the risk of stroke.

Another major risk factor for both strokes and intracranial aneurysms is cigarette smoking. Smoking leads to an increase in risks of developing cardiovascular disease and an intracranial aneurysm. Smoking harms your cardiovascular system. For patients who already have intracranial aneurysms, smoking also increases risk of the aneurysm rupturing. Avoiding cigarette smoking or quitting altogether is one of the most important and effective beneficial lifestyle changes one can make to prevent strokes and aneurysms. If your health is at risk, I encourage you to reach out to your primary-care provider for support in quitting smoking.

Jorge Eller, M.D., is a cerebrovascular and endovascular surgeon at AtlantiCare Neurosciences Institute, co-medical director of AtlantiCare Stroke Program, and clinical professor in the department of neurological surgery at Jefferson Neurosciences at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City.