You’re never too old to lower your risk of stroke.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the U.S. Anyone can have a stroke at any age, but older individuals are at a greater risk. After age 55, your risk for stroke doubles every 10 years. But age isn’t the only determining factor in your risk for stroke.

“While we can’t change our age, family history and other factors, there are a number of things that are well within our control,” said Dr. Jason Ignatius, Penn Highlands Healthcare Neurologist and Stroke Program Director. “By lowering your blood pressure, improving your diet and getting more exercise, you can lower your risk for a debilitating or deadly stroke.”

High blood pressure.
Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke. But it is also the most significant factor that you can control. One way to do this is by reducing the salt in your diet. Ideally, you should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams a day (about a half teaspoon). You can also increase the amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in your diet, while avoiding foods that are high in saturated fats.

Why does smoking increase the risk of stroke? The nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke damage the cardiovascular system, leading to a greater risk of stroke. Quitting smoking is difficult, but with the right guidance, you can start on the path of quitting. Products and aids, such as nicotine pills, nicotine patches, counseling or medicine, can boost your chances of successfully quitting. Ask your doctor for advice on the most appropriate way for you to quit.

Not only do type 1 and type 2 diabetes increase the risk of stroke in and of itself, people with diabetes are more likely to have high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol or obesity, increasing the risk even more. Diabetes is treatable, and you can manage your diabetes by monitoring your blood sugar as directed by your doctor and improving your diet and exercise to keep your blood sugar within the recommended range.

Diets high in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol have been linked to an increased risk of stroke, so avoid high-fat foods as much as possible. Depending on your activity level and your current BMI, aim to eat no more than 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day, with four to five cups of fruits and vegetables each day, one serving of fish two to three times a week and several daily servings of whole grains and low-fat dairy.

Physical inactivity.
Increasing your physical activity can lower your blood pressure, help you lose weight and reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity a day, and more, if possible. When exercising, you should reach the level at which you're breathing hard but can still talk. If you don't have 30 consecutive minutes to exercise, break it up into 10- to 15-minute sessions a few times each day.

“Everyone should be familiar with the signs of a stroke,” said Dr. Gerald Smith, Penn highlands Healthcare Emergency Department Stroke Program Director. “Remember the acronym B.E. F.A.S.T., which stands for balance, eyes, face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty and time to call 9-1-1. If someone is having a stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately and do not drive them to the hospital yourself. Emergency responders can begin life-saving treatment before you reach the hospital.”

All Penn Highlands Healthcare emergency rooms are prepared to identify and treat strokes as quickly as possible, and Penn Highlands DuBois is a designated Primary Stroke Center for the region. For more information, visit