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Tennessee among 11 states in the 'stroke belt'

Being a southerner has many upsides, as any SEC football fan will tell you. But hailing from the land of grits and gravy also has downsides, especially when it comes to health. Tennessee sits squarely in the “stroke belt,” a swath of states where strokes – which occur when the brain experiences damage, often caused by a blocked blood vessel or bleeding – are more common than in other parts of the country.

Stroke is a leading cause of death and long-term disability in the United States. Nearly 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year, and 137,000 of those people lose their lives to the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association. But there is good news. The rate of strokes has been dropping steadily over the past 15 years, and leading a healthy lifestyle significantly reduces your risk of having a stroke.

In honor of Stroke Awareness Month, which occurs every May, here are several steps you can take to protect your health:

  • Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are two major risk factors for strokes. Controlling these conditions can significantly reduce that risk, but many Americans do not even realize they have them. The best way to know is to visit a doctor, so make sure to schedule regular check-ups.   
  • Quit smoking! In addition to increasing the risk of lung cancer and other serious diseases, smoking is a huge risk factor for stroke.
  • Hit the gym. Many doctors say that exercise combined with a healthy diet is more effective for preventing strokes than any medications available by prescription. Exercise can lower your blood pressure, increase levels of lipoprotein (good cholesterol) and improve the health of your blood vessels and heart, which all reduce your risk of stroke. Please talk with your physician before started any exercise plan or changing medication. 
  • Watch out for the “Southern Diet.” Traditional southern cuisine includes fried chicken, fried okra, fried tomatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages and many other delicious but unhealthy foods. Limiting your intake of these foods, as well as others high in trans fat and saturated fat, significantly reduces the risk of stroke.
  • Stock up on fruits and veggies. Tomatoes, grapefruits, watermelons and guava are rich in antioxidants and proven to reduce the risk of stroke. In general, people who eat a healthy diet – which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables – have a much lower risk of stroke.
  • Drink green tea or coffee. A study published by the American Heart Association found people who drink green tea and coffee have a lower risk of stroke, most likely because of the good-for-you antioxidants found in these beverages.
  • Eat foods rich in fiber. Researchers compiled 20 years of studies to find that the more fiber consumed, the lower the risk of a first stroke. It is unclear if fiber supplements would provide the same benefit as consuming fiber-rich foods.
  • Beware of booze: Heavy alcohol consumption increases your blood pressure, which is a risk factor for stroke. However, studies suggest that moderate amounts of alcohol may decrease blood clotting tendencies and actually lower the risk of stroke.

While up to 80 percent of strokes may be prevented through lifestyle changes, it is also important to know and recognize the symptoms of a stroke. Receiving timely medical attention is critical for stroke victims because there is an FDA-approved medication that greatly reduces the risk of long-term disability for most strokes, if it is administered within three hours of the first symptoms.

Stroke symptoms occur suddenly and may include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm(s) or leg(s), especially on one side of the body;
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding, or general confusion;
  • Trouble seeing out of one or both eyes;
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, or trouble walking; and
  • Severe and unexplained headaches.  

The Southeast is a great place to live, with friendly people, warmer weather and great music. Being aware of risk factors and making a few simple lifestyle changes will help you stay healthy, even while living in an area with high rates of stroke.   

The Saint Thomas Health offers quick access to treatment through a comprehensive network of stroke centers located through Middle Tennessee. For more information, visit

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