NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new study confirms that people who maintain a healthy weight, exercise, eat well and abstain from smoking and heavy drinking have a reduced risk of stroke.
Previous studies have identified individual risk factors for stroke. The authors of the new report used a model based on data from almost 24,000 people to determine how having an overall healthy lifestyle might affect the risk of a first-time stroke.
"Our combined risk factor analysis indicated that about 38 percent of primary stroke occurrences could have been prevented in our study population if all study participants had maintained the healthiest risk profile," Kaja Tikk from the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg and colleagues write.
That was defined by the authors as never smoking, maintaining an optimal weight and waist circumference, exercising, consuming a moderate amount of alcohol and following a healthy diet.
Close to 800,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tikk's team analyzed data from a large European study that began in 1994. The 23,927 participants filled out questionnaires about their health and lifestyle and the researchers tracked them for approximately 13 years. During that time, 551 had a first stroke.
By analyzing each person's stroke-related risk factors, the researchers estimated that following an overall healthy lifestyle would reduce the number of strokes from 153 to 94 per 100,000 women between age 60 and 65 and from 261 to 161 per 100,000 men during the same period.
Not all risk factors appeared to have an equal impact on stroke prevention, based on a model built by the authors.
They said the two strongest lifestyle-related risk factors were smoking and excess body weight.
"Being a former smoker was not associated with stroke risk, showing that cessation of smoking is effective in stroke prevention," the researchers write in the journal Stroke.
They also found that heavy drinking was linked to a higher risk of stroke among men, but not necessarily among women. No protection appeared to be associated with light drinking, contrary to the results of previous studies.
The findings can't prove certain health and lifestyle factors were responsible for increasing stroke risk. They just show strokes were more common among people with those habits and characteristics.
Dr. Daniel Labovitz believes this is still a strong study because the authors were able to look at multiple risk factors at once.
"This pulled together lots of healthy lifestyle behaviors and looked at them all at the same time in a way which we haven't been able to do before," Labovitz told Reuters Health.
He directs the Stern Stroke Center at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York and was not part of the new study.
"I especially liked it because there was no pill involved here, it's just about doing what your mom would say was good for you: get your exercise, eat properly, don't get too fat," he said. "That's essentially what it added up to and boy did it ever pay off. That's a bigger difference than we can generate with any single pill that I can give for stroke prevention."
Labovitz said most people don't realize that a stroke is a blood vessel problem just like a heart attack, so the risk factors and preventive measures are essentially the same.
"Basically what we're talking about here is stroke that is caused by blockage or bursting of a blood vessel, and that's exactly what the heart doctors have been talking about all these years," he said. During a heart attack, "blood vessels don't burst but they certainly do get blocked."
Labovitz added that exercising, following a Mediterranean-style or DASH-style diet - which is rich in nutrients and protein but lower in saturated fat and salt - and not smoking all help prevent both heart attacks and strokes.