The risks of cerebrovascular disease and how to prevent them
Certain things increase your risk of cerebrovascular disease.
Many of the risk factors for cerebrovascular disease are linked, which means if you have one, it's likely you'll also have others.
For example, someone who's overweight or obese is more likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
To significantly reduce the risk of cerebrovascular disease, you need to look at your lifestyle as a whole. In particular, you need to consider:
- your weight
- your diet
- how active you are and the amount of regular exercise you do
- whether you need to stop smoking
- how much alcohol you drink
- your stress levels
As well as reducing your risk of developing cerebrovascular disease, making changes to your lifestyle will also lower your risk of getting other serious health conditions, such as coronary heart disease, heart attack and cancer.
High blood pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a significant risk factor for cerebrovascular disease.
The increase in blood pressure damages the walls of the brain's blood vessels, increasing the risk of a blood clot forming or an artery rupturing (splitting). Both of these can trigger a stroke.
If you have high blood pressure, you're four times more likely to have a stroke than someone with healthy blood pressure.
You can prevent high blood pressure by excercising regularly, eating healthily, not smoking and drinking alcohol in moderation.
However, hypertension is still common, even in people who have a healthy lifestyle, and treatment with medication is usually required. It's therefore important to have your blood pressure checked from time to time.
Read more about preventing high blood pressure.
Atrial fibrillation is a common disorder that causes the heart to beat irregularly. It can occur without any symptoms, but clots can form in the heart, which can break off and travel to the brain and cause a stroke.
Atrial fibrillation can be treated to prevent stroke, so if you have a pulse that beats irregularly or you have undiagnosed palpitations, you should visit your GP to test for the condition.
High blood cholesterol
High blood cholesterol can cause your arteries to narrow, increasing your risk of developing a blood clot.
The toxins in tobacco can damage and narrow the blood vessels that supply the brain. Smoking also causes high blood pressure.
It's estimated that a person who smokes 20 cigarettes a day is six times more likely to have a stroke than someone who doesn't smoke.
If you smoke, it's strongly recommended that you give up as soon as possible. Your GP will be able to provide you with further information and advice, and they can prescribe medication to help you stop smoking.
The NHS Smokefree service also provides useful information, advice and support. You can speak to an adviser by calling their free helpline on 0300 123 1044. Lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 11am-4pm (England only).
A diet that contains a high amount of saturated fat and salt can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and narrowing of the arteries, which all increase your risk of cerebrovascular disease.
A low-fat, high-fibre diet that includes wholegrains and at least five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day is recommended for a healthy heart and brain.
Limit the amount of salt in your diet to no more than 6g (0.2oz or 1 teaspoon) a day. Too much salt will increase your blood pressure. Check the salt content of processed foods and try not to add salt to your food.
Also, avoid eating foods high in saturated fat because they'll increase your cholesterol level. Foods that contain high levels of saturated fat include:
- meat pies
- sausages and fatty cuts of meat
- ghee – a type of butter often used in Indian cooking
- hard cheese
- cakes and biscuits
Foods high in unsaturated fat can help decrease your cholesterol level. These foods include:
- oily fish
- nuts and seeds
- olive oil
Read more about healthy eating.
Not exercising regularly puts you at risk of developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Being physically inactive also increases your chances of becoming overweight.
To maintain a good level of health, the Department of Health recommends you do at least:
- 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as cycling or fast walking, every week, and
- muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)
Read more about the physical activity guidelines for adults.
Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing a number of serious health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
To lose weight, you need to combine regular exercise with a calorie-controlled diet. After you've reached your ideal weight, you should aim to maintain it by eating healthily and exercising regularly.
You can use the healthy weight calculator to calculate your body mass index (BMI) and get tips about how to lose weight. You can also read more about losing weight.
The high blood sugar levels associated with diabetes can damage the body's organs and arteries.
If you have type 1 diabetes, regular insulin treatment should keep your blood sugar levels normal.
If you have type 2 diabetes, it may be possible to control your symptoms by making simple lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly and eating healthily. However, you may need medication (tablets or injections) to keep your blood glucose normal.
Read more about living with type 1 diabetes and living with type 2 diabetes.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can increase your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and increases the risk of bleeding into the brain.
You shouldn't exceed the recommended daily alcohol limits. These are:
- 3-4 units a day for men
- 2-3 units a day for women
One pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider contains two units of alcohol, and a single pub measure (25ml) of spirits contains one unit. A small glass of wine (125ml) contains 1.5 units of alcohol.
Visit your GP if you're finding it difficult to moderate your drinking. Treatments such as counselling and medication are available to help you reduce your alcohol intake.
Read more about alcohol units and drinking excessively.
Reducing the amount of stress in your life may help you control your blood pressure, as well as keeping your blood sugar levels under control. Both of these will help reduce your risk of getting cerebrovascular disease.
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels, as have relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and yoga.
Read more about managing stress.
If your risk of getting cerebrovascular disease is thought to be particularly high, medication may be prescribed to help reduce the risk.
For example, you may be prescribed:
Page last reviewed: 02/02/2015
Next review due: 02/02/2017