A healthy lifestyle could reduce women’s risk of stroke by more than 50%, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology.

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Researchers say a healthy lifestyle – not smoking, regular exercise, a healthy diet, healthy BMI and moderate alcohol consumption – may cut total stroke risk for women by more than 50%.

Each year, 795,000 people in the US have a stroke. It is the fourth leading cause of death, killing almost 130,000 Americans every year.

It is well established that an unhealthy diet and other lifestyle factors – such as lack of exercise, obesity, high alcohol consumption and smoking – can increase the risk of stroke.

But according to the research team, including Susanna C. Larsson, PhD, of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, few studies have looked at how adherence to a healthy diet and lifestyle influences stroke risk.

With this in mind, the team analyzed the diet and lifestyle of 31,696 women of an average age of 60 who were part of the Swedish Mammography Cohort.

The women completed a 350-item questionnaire disclosing their diet and lifestyle habits at study baseline. The researchers note that all women were free of cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Over 10 years of follow-up, the team looked at how the following five healthy lifestyle factors influenced the women’s risk of stroke:

  • Healthy diet (defined as being in the top 50% of a recommended food score assessing how often they consumed fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products)
  • Never smoking
  • Moderate alcohol consumption (three to nine drinks each week)
  • Regular exercise (walking or biking for a minimum of 40 minutes a day, plus more vigorous exercise for at least 1 hour a week)
  • Healthy BMI (defined as below 25).

The team found that only 589 women followed all five healthy lifestyle factors, while 1,535 women followed none. The remaining women followed two or three of the healthy lifestyle factors.

During follow-up, there were 1,554 cases of stroke. These included 1,155 cerebral infarctions (a type of ischemic stroke that accounts for 80-85% of all strokes), 246 hemorrhagic strokes and 153 unspecified strokes.

The researchers found that women who followed all five healthy lifestyle factors were at 54% lower total stroke risk and a 62% lower risk of cerebral infarction, compared with those who followed none.

Total stroke risk and risk of cerebral infarction, however, reduced with each additional healthy lifestyle factor followed.

The team found no link between following all five healthy lifestyle factors and hemorrhagic stroke.

Commenting on the team’s findings, Larsson says:

Because the consequences of stroke are usually devastating and irreversible, prevention is of great importance. These results are exciting because they indicate that a healthy diet and lifestyle can substantially reduce the risk of stroke, and these are lifestyle choices that people can make or improve.”

Medical News Today recently reported on a study claiming potassium-rich foods could reduce the risk of stroke among older women, while a 2013 study claims walking for 3 hours a week lowers stroke risk.