How serious a health risk are strokes? Who is at greatest risk? Can a healthy diet reduce the risk? What else can we do? And can this help reduce the risk of other serious illnesses?

How serious a health risk are strokes?

More than 100,000 people have a stroke each year in the UK. It is one of the main causes of death here – and the leading cause of disability. That’s according to the NHS. 

Across the world strokes cause over 6 million deaths a year.

What happens when we have a stroke?

We’ve all heard of heart attacks. Strokes are essentially brain attacks. They happen when the blood supply to our brain is cut off, for instance because there’s a blockage in a blood vessel leading to the brain.

If blood doesn’t reach our brain this can damage our brain cells or completely destroy them. This can lead to a range of harmful consequences – from death to various forms of disability, depending on what partand how much of the brain tissue is affected.

Who is at greatest risk of having a stroke?

Anyone can potentially have a stroke. However, the risks are greater if you: 

  • Have high blood pressure (the biggest single risk factor)
  • Have diabetes (up to four times more likely to have a stroke)
  • Have heart disease
  • Have a brain aneurysm (a balloon like bulge in an artery that can stretch and burst)
  • Have high cholesterol
  • Are older (the risk of stroke doubles with every decade from 55 onwards)
  • Are black/African American
  • Have a personal or family history of stroke – or have had a Transient Ischemic Attack (temporary stroke like symptoms). 

You also have an increased risk if you have cancer or atrial fibrillation (an abnormal heart rhythm).

An unhealthy lifestyle is another important risk factor for strokes

Smoking is a risk factor in its own right – and the risk is unfortunately increased still further if you are a woman taking the contraceptive pill.

Other lifestyle risk factors include alcohol and illegal drug use, lack of physical activity, an unhealthy diet and obesity. They can also lead to some of the risk factors identified above, like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

Ongoing stress is another risk factor. It can raise blood pressure and not dealing well with stress can lead to smoking - both risk factors in their own right.

Unfortunately, we can’t do much about some types of risk. However, if you know you are at greater risk there are two things you can do i.e.

  • Make sure you take medical advice about reducing or managing any risk factors
  • Make it a priority to follow a healthy lifestyle

Stroke prevention: can a healthy diet lifestyle reduce the risk?

Prevention is always better than cure. So anything we can do to reduce the risk of a stroke is likely to be worthwhile.

Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the risk of a stroke by two to four times.

Eat healthily. The Stroke Association advises that:

  • Eating at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables a day can reduce your risk of stroke by up to 30%.
  • Eating any type of fish at least once a month (and ideally once or twice a week) reduces your risk of stroke.
  • You should limit your sugar consumption to 60g a day (the equivalent of 12 teaspoons), for example by avoiding fizzy drinks (which often contain a lot of sugar)
  • Cutting down the amount of fat in your diet and replacing ‘bad fats’ with ‘good fats’, for example olive oil can help reduce the risk.
  • Limiting salt to a teaspoon a day (or 6g) also helps. This includes hidden salt found in some ready-made and processed foods.
  • Wholegrains play an important role in preventing stroke, including wholegrain breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholemeal pasta and brown rice, as well as oats, oat bran, oatmeal and barley.

Engage in regular aerobic exercise. This reduces the risk of stroke by producing new blood vessels in the brain and enhancing its blood supply over time. It also helps reduce stress (along with other stress relieving activities like music, meditation and Tai Chi_

Can this help reduce other health risks?

The good news is that a healthy lifestyle will also reduce your risk of some other serious illnesses. – like heart attack, diabetes, kidney disease and some forms of dementia.


1. If you’re in an ‘at risk’ group (e.g. you have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or a family history of stroke) follow medical advice.

2. Maintaining a healthy blood pressure is the single most important way of reducing the risk of a stroke.

3. A healthy lifestyle will reduce the risk of stroke and other serious health risksso

  • Don’t smoke
  • Eat a Mediterranean style Diet  (with plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains and some fish)
  • Limit how much sugar, salt and ‘bad’ fats you eat.
  • Keep active

Reviewed and updated by Dianne Cottle July 2018. Next review, June 2022.