Neurology and Neurosurgery

How to keep your vascular system healthy and prevent strokes

The vascular system is like a winding highway, pictured here. When it is healthy, the blood flows like traffic on an open highway. When the vascular system is unhealthy, it is like a traffic jam or a car accident when something like a stroke happens.


Your vascular system works hard for you. But do you know what it does and how critical its health is to stroke prevention? Find out what your intricate vascular system does and how to keep it healthy to lower stroke risk.


By Andreas Spirig, MD, Chief of Vascular Surgery, Vassar Brothers Medical Center, and Paul Wright, MD, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Nuvance Health Neuroscience Institute


Did you know about 80% of strokes can be prevented? It all comes down to your vascular health. But what exactly is your vascular system, and how can you keep it in top shape to avoid a serious medical emergency like a stroke?



What is the vascular system?


Your vascular system, or the circulatory system, is a vast network of blood vessels and lymph vessels, including arteries and veins. Your vascular system circulates blood throughout your body.


What are the main functions of the vascular system?


The intricate vascular system moves blood throughout your body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to every cell. The blood vessels, which consist of arteries and veins, play a crucial role in this process. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart, and veins return oxygen-depleted blood to the heart. This continuous blood flow is essential for keeping your organs and tissues healthy.


Interruptions to this blood flow can cause problems throughout your body, including a heart attack, pulmonary embolism, which affects the lungs, or a stroke, which affects the brain.



What happens to the brain every time your heart beats?


Every time your heart beats, it pumps blood rich in oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Interestingly, around 15% to 20% of this blood is directed to your brain. Although the brain is only about 2% of your body weight, it demands a substantial blood supply to maintain its complex functions. This constant flow of blood ensures the brain remains healthy and capable of controlling various bodily functions.


What are common conditions that affect the vascular system?


Several conditions can impact the health of your vascular system, including:


Heart disease includes a range of conditions, with coronary artery disease being the most common. Coronary artery disease occurs when the arteries that supply blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked from plaque buildup. This process is called atherosclerosis.


High blood pressure, also called hypertension, strains your blood vessels and can damage them over time. High blood pressure can cause the walls of your blood vessels to thicken and become less elastic, restricting blood flow.


Diabetes, which many people immediately associate diabetes with blood sugar, but not the vascular system. This metabolic disorder can damage blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.


Obesity increases your risk for diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, which all can hurt your vascular system. Obesity can also strain your heart and make it harder to circulate blood throughout your body.


All these common conditions can significantly affect blood flow to the brain, leading to a stroke. You can manage these conditions with the support of your doctor through lifestyle modifications and medications.



Why does an unhealthy vascular system increase the risk of stroke?


An unhealthy vascular system can lead to blockages in the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain, resulting in an ischemic stroke. This type of stroke is called a “brain attack” because like a heart attack, the brain is deprived of blood and oxygen. Brain cells begin to die immediately when the blood supply is cut off.



Another type of stroke, called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), happens when there is a problem in your vascular system. Known commonly as a “Mini Stroke,” TIAs cause ischemic stroke symptoms, but they resolve within 24 hours. A TIA is a warning sign you might have a full-blown ischemic stroke. Your doctor can help determine the underlying cause, such as high blood pressure, and treat it.



An unhealthy vascular system can also cause silent strokes. Silent strokes do not cause noticeable symptoms because of the part of the brain affected. Over time, silent strokes can cause dementia. While you may not know you are having a silent stroke, you can reduce your risk by keeping your vascular system in tip-top shape. Keep reading for tips to lower your risk of stroke.


Weakened blood vessels can also rupture, causing a hemorrhagic stroke. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs from bleeding in the brain, which disrupts the normal blood flow. High blood pressure or a ruptured brain aneurysm can cause a hemorrhagic stroke.


Ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes are serious medical emergencies that can have lasting effects on your health and quality of life.



How can you keep your vascular system healthy?


You can keep your vascular system flowing smoothly by following these tips:


Diet: Eat a balanced diet full of colorful fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Avoid excessive consumption of saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol, such as processed meats and packaged baked goods.


Exercise: Improve your cardiovascular health and maintain a healthy weight by regularly exercising. The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity. But any activity is better than no activity! The key is finding something you enjoy and look forward to.


Sleep: Not getting enough sleep can lead to all the major conditions that affect your vascular system, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. Regularly getting a restful sleep helps your body to repair and rejuvenate. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends most adults get seven or more hours of sleep per night.



Don’t smoke: Avoid smoking, as it damages blood vessels and significantly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.


Limit alcohol: Drink alcohol in moderation or not at all to avoid its harmful effects on your vascular system. If you don’t drink, don’t start. If you do drink, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.


Can you improve your vascular system?


You can take steps to reduce plaque buildup and repair damage to your blood vessels by:


Eating certain foods: Include foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and antioxidants to support vascular health. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, mackerel and salmon. Most fruits, vegetables, oats and whole grains are great sources of fiber. Many berries, like raspberries, and leafy greens, like kale and spinach, are high in antioxidants.


Exercising regularly: Physical activity helps improve circulation and strengthens your heart.


Drinking enough water: Stay hydrated to ensure optimal blood flow.



How does improving blood flow affect the brain?


Enhancing blood flow to the brain can have several positive effects, including reducing the risk of strokes, lowering the chance of developing dementia and boosting mood. By prioritizing your vascular health, you can improve and maintain your cognitive function and overall brain health.


The bottom line: Your vascular system works tirelessly behind the scenes, ensuring every part of your body receives the oxygen and nutrients it needs. By understanding its importance and taking proactive steps to maintain its health, you can significantly reduce your risk of stroke and other vascular-related conditions.