If you have been diagnosed with carotid artery disease (the disease process that causes most strokes), lifestyle changes and medications will be an important part of treatment, even if you have had a procedure to restore blood flow to your brain. Procedures such as carotid angioplasty and stenting or carotid endarterectomy can address serious blockages in the arteries, but they do not control other risk factors, nor do they stop the disease process that is causing artery-clogging plaque to build-up throughout all arteries in the body.
Lifestyle changes can be difficult to make, but they are well worth the effort. Making positive changes in diet, exercise and personal outlook can have measurable beneficial effects on risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight. Reductions in any of these risk factors can help control carotid artery disease and lower the risk of stroke. If you have already had a stroke or a procedure such as carotid artery angioplasty and stenting or carotid endarterectomy, lifestyle changes can help with your recovery and prevention of future problems.
Lifestyle Changes That Reduce Risk of Stroke
The lifestyle changes that are good for carotid artery disease are the same recommendations for overall wellness. While changing habits can be hard, incremental lifestyle changes can reap big rewards. Here are the strategies that have been shown to have the biggest impact for people who have, or are at risk for, narrowing of the carotid arteries.
Stop smoking. The toxins in cigarette smoke damage artery walls throughout the body, including the carotid arteries. This damage leads directly to atherosclerosis, or "hardening of the arteries." Quitting smoking can slow the progression of carotid artery disease.
Eat a healthier diet. A diet low in saturated fats can reduce cholesterol build-up and narrowing of the carotid arteries. A healthier diet can also help control other risk factors for carotid artery disease, such as obesity and high blood pressure. Learn more about a healthy diet here.
Drink alcohol only in moderation. Alcohol consumption is a contributor to two of the risk factors for carotid artery disease: high blood pressure and obesity. For good overall health, including healthy carotid arteries, men should limit alcohol consumption to 1–2 drinks a day and women should limit themselves to 1 drink per day. One drink is 12 fluid ounces of regular beer, 5 fluid ounces of wine, or 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
Exercise or be physically active. Doing good for your carotid arteries does not require becoming a triathlete. The path to improved wellness can be as simple as 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. This can be walking, biking, doing house or lawn work or whatever gets you moving. You and your physician can discuss what level of exercise might be both suitable and enjoyable for you. For tips on getting physically active, click here.
Lose weight. Weight gain can substantially elevate your risk of stroke. Work with your physician on a plan to gradually decrease weight until your body mass index (BMI) is under 25. Losing weight can help control blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Monitor blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure (hypertension), your blood moves through the arteries with more force and stress against the inside of the artery walls. This can result in damage to the arteries leading to the brain and throughout the body. Plaque – a fatty, waxy substance – builds up on damaged artery walls, narrowing the passageway for blood flow. Monitoring your blood pressure is important to protecting the health of your arteries. Blood pressure readings are recorded with two numbers, one over the other, as a ratio. A normal blood pressure reading should be less than 120 over 80 millimeters of mercury. You can learn more about high blood pressure, and how to manage it, here.
Reduce stress. A diagnosis of carotid artery disease can be stressful, but that stress response can do further harm to your arteries. Stress contributes to high blood pressure and to atherosclerosis. Your plan for prevention or recovery should include measures to reduce stress. Your care team can help you learn stress-busting techniques such as exercise or meditation. Learn about stress management here.
For severe blockages in the carotid arteries, lifestyle changes and medication alone will not be sufficient treatment to reduce the risk of future strokes. Your treating physician will evaluate you to determine the severity of any blockages and which treatment makes the most sense for you based on your patient history and risk factors. Blockages can be treated using a surgical procedure called carotid endarterectomy to make an incision and remove the blockage or with a minimally invasive procedure called carotid angioplasty and stenting in which treatment is delivered via a thin tube (catheter) to push the blockage aside and prop the artery open. Learn more about treatment of carotid artery disease here.
Medications go hand in hand with lifestyle changes when it comes to treating carotid artery disease. Click here to learn more about the medications that may be prescribed to help prevent a first or recurrent stroke.
SecondsCount provides tools that can help you get started with making lifestyle changes. Check out our strategies for moving more, and print the Blood Pressure Log to track your blood pressure readings over time.