But among all genetic risk profiles — low and high — those who followed Life’s Simple 7 had a 30 to 43 percent lower risk of stroke than those who did not adhere to the behaviors. That corresponds to nearly six additional years lived free of stroke.
“This study shows that you could do an amazing amount of risk reduction by living a healthy lifestyle, regardless of your genetic status,” says Cheryl Bushnell, M.D., a neurologist at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. “That’s really the bottom line.”
Lowering your risk for stroke can have additional health benefits too, research shows. For example, it can help protect your brain, since stroke is one of the strongest known risk factors for dementia, according to a report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health.
“When you adopt these healthy cardiovascular behaviors,” Fornage says, “you essentially maintain your brain health and do good for your heart as well.”
Nationwide about 10 percent of the 50-plus population, or 7.6 million people, have suffered a stroke at some point in their lives, Bushnell says, citing statistics from the AHA’s annual Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics report. But the risk, she notes, increases “dramatically” with age: 2.5 percent of adults ages 40 to 59 have suffered a stroke, versus 6 percent of those ages 60 to 79 and 13 percent of those over age 80.
As for how many people are genetically at risk for stroke, “that’s a difficult thing to answer,” Bushnell says, adding that researchers have identified 32 distinct genes associated with stroke.
“The interesting thing, though, is that most of them are linked in some way to other factors, like blood pressure or cholesterol,” she says. In other words, lifestyle plays a role in triggering stroke, even for those with a genetic predisposition.
The damaging effects of stroke
However a stroke occurs, it can have dramatic consequences. “It’s often long-term disability, but it can be death,” Fornage says.
In fact, stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What goes wrong depends on the type of stroke and the part of the brain that’s affected, Bushnell says.
Sometimes stroke attacks vision or leaves a person with tingling or weakness. Some people, after a stroke, have difficulty swallowing, or get a frozen shoulder, or stiffness and spasms in a weak limb. “It’s not something that anybody wants to have to deal with long-term,” she adds.
And that first stroke can cause more complications, because now the person is often moving less, which can lead to infection, heart disease and more blood clots. “Having a stroke is a life-changing event,” Bushnell says.