What can I do to avoid a heart attack or a stroke?

Online Q&A
Updated September 2015

Q: What can I do to avoid a heart attack or a stroke?

A: WHO estimates that more than 17.5 million people died of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack or stroke in 2012. Contrary to popular belief, more than 3 out of 4 of these deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and men and women were equally affected.

The good news, however, is that 80% of premature heart attacks and strokes are preventable. Healthy diet, regular physical activity, and not using tobacco products are the keys to prevention. Checking and controlling risk factors for heart disease and stroke such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar or diabetes is also very important.

Eat a healthy diet: A balanced diet is crucial to a healthy heart and circulation system. This should include plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, fish and pulses with restricted salt, sugar and fat intake. Alcohol should also be used in moderation.

Take regular physical activity: At least 30 minutes of regular physical activity every day helps to maintain cardiovascular fitness; at least 60 minutes on most days of the week helps to maintain healthy weight.

Avoid tobacco use: Tobacco in every form is very harmful to health - cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewable tobacco. Exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke is also dangerous. The risk of heart attack and stroke starts to drop immediately after a person stops using tobacco products, and can drop by as much as half after 1 year.

Check and control your overall cardiovascular risk: An important aspect of preventing heart attacks and strokes is by providing treatment and counselling to individuals at high risk (those with a 10 year cardiovascular risk equal to or above 30%) and reducing their cardiovascular risk. A health worker can estimate your cardiovascular risk using simple risk charts and provide the appropriate advice for managing your risk factors.

  • Know your blood pressure: High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, but is one of the biggest causes of sudden stroke or heart attack. Have your blood pressure checked and know your numbers. If it is high, you will need to change your lifestyle to incorporate a healthy diet with less salt intake and increase physical activity, and may need medications to control your blood pressure.
  • Know your blood lipids: Raised blood cholesterol and abnormal blood lipids increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Blood cholesterol needs to be controlled through a healthy diet and, if necessary, by appropriate medications.
  • Know your blood sugar: Raised blood glucose (diabetes) increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. If you have diabetes it is very important to control your blood pressure and blood sugar to minimize the risk.