By Ginny Graves
September 09, 2001

People with healthy blood pressure—less than 120/80—have about half the lifetime risk of stroke as those with high blood pressure, or hypertension. “High blood pressure damages blood vessels throughout the body, making them more susceptible to developing clots,” says Lewis Morgenstern, MD, director of the University of Michigan Stroke Program.

Women over 55 are significantly more likely than men to develop hypertension, perhaps because theyve lost whatever protective effects estrogen might have provided. Heres how to keep your blood pressure in the safe zone.

Exercise regularly
In a study of more than 47,000 men and women in Finland, moderate and high levels of physical activity were associated with lower stroke risk. Exercise helps reduce blood pressure by making the heart stronger. And the stronger the heart, the less effort it takes to pump blood around the body—so the lower the blood pressure. Physical activity also can help decrease the risk of developing diabetes and control cholesterol levels, both of which up your chances of a stroke.

Drink moderately
Experts arent clear on why alcohol raises blood pressure and increases stroke risk, but research from the University of Cincinnati has shown that having more than two drinks a day is associated with subarachnoid hemorrhage, a particularly deadly type of stroke caused by the rupture of a blood vessel on the surface of the brain; it tends to strike premenopausal women.

Likewise, Tulane University researchers reported several months ago that the risk of ischemic stroke rises with greater alcohol intake.

Control your weight
Gaining even 22 pounds after the age of 18 is associated with increased risk of stroke.

Eat a healthy diet
Diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol can raise blood-cholesterol levels.

“Cholesterol tends to adhere to the arteries, and blood tends to stick to those spots, increasing the risk of clotting,” Morgenstern says. Excess sodium intake can contribute to high blood pressure, too. Eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day may reduce stroke risk.

Stop smoking
Stroke risk decreases significantly two years after quitting and is at the level of nonsmokers by five years, research shows. In fact, recent data from the Womens Health Study showed that women who smoke a pack a day are at increased risk of hypertension. Whats more, the nicotine and carbon monoxide damage the cardiovascular system, leading to a higher risk of stroke.