Think all those late-night trips for fast food as a teenager don’t matter? Well, you could be paying the price for too many McDonald’s Big Macs—not to mention smoking and drinking—for years to come.
According to a new study, your rebellious bad habits may still increase your risk of having a stroke when you are older.
The study of almost 25,000 people, published online in the journal Neurology, found that people who lived as teenagers in the “stroke belt”—the southeastern area of the U.S. where strokes are more common—were 17 percent more likely to have a stroke in later years than people who lived elsewhere during that time of their life.
“This study suggests that strategies to prevent stroke need to start early in life,” said study author Virginia J. Howard, PhD, of the School of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Many social and behavioral risk factors, such as smoking, are set in place during the teenage years, and teens are more exposed to external influences and gain the knowledge to challenge or reaffirm their childhood habits and lifestyle.”
The risk factors for stroke include diabetes, high blood pressure, smoking and obesity, many of which can be reduced simply by changing your ways. While these risk factors are the ones most commonly highlighted by doctors, the researchers found that they didn’t account for all of the increased risk of stroke for people in the study. As with the real estate market, it’s also about location, location, location.
This lines up with previous research which has shown that people who are born in the stroke belt, but move away—along with people who move there as adults—have a greater chance of having a stroke. Scientists are not certain why this part of the country is more harmful to your long-term health, but some suspect it’s caused by environmental factors such as air pollution, tobacco smoke or pesticides. One study even found a link between the soil characteristics and the chance of having a stroke, possibly due to infectious organisms in the soil.
Teenage Habits and Stroke Risk
Whatever the cause, encouraging children and teenagers to make smart choices is essential, since their early habits will stay with them well into adulthood.
“Helping adolescents establish healthy lifestyles and avoid developing risky health behaviors also seems to be crucial and should be started before these behaviors are firmly established,” said the authors of a related editorial in Neurology.
There is still much room for improvement in this area, though. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of children ages 12 through 19 are obese, more than triple what it was in 1980.
And if you look at the typical teenage diet, it’s clear that it’s not just their waistlines that are growing, but also their bad habits. In 2006, 83 percent of teens snacked during the day, up from 61 percent in 1978.
In 2006, this amounted to an extra 526 calories per day—nearly a quarter of their total intake. While this didn’t affect their body mass index (BMI)—a calculation based upon height and weight that is used to determine whether someone is obese or overweighs—the snacks added one-third more sugars and one-fifth more fats to their diets.
Healthy Choices Reduce Risk of Stroke
If steering clear of the fried chicken … errrrrr, stroke … belt isn’t possible, you can also decrease your risk of stroke by making healthier choices when you are young (as well as throughout your life). These changes, which are actually a good idea no matter where you live, include:
- Stopping smoking
- Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains
- Eating less saturated fat, cholesterol and added sugar
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Staying physically active.
Faced with his own health crisis, even Bill Clinton was able to trade in his McDonald’s and junk food diet for a plant-based vegan diet. If he can make that kind of radical change, you can certainly get off the couch and run (or power walk) away from the bag of potato chips calling to you from the cupboard.
- Castilla-Guerra L, & Mokdad AH (2013). Stroke prevention in the Stroke Belt: Is the adolescence period the clue? Neurology, [online, cited 24 April 2013] DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182905006
- Ducey TF, Miller JO, Busscher WJ, Lackland DT, & Hunt PG (2012). An analysis of the link between strokes and soils in the South Carolina coastal plains. Journal of environmental science and health. Part A, Toxic/hazardous substances & environmental engineering, 47 (8), 1104-12 PMID: 22506703
- Howard V, McClure LA, Glymour MM, Cunningham SA, Kleindorfer DO, Crowe M, Wadley VG, Peace F, Howard G, & Lackland DT (2013). Effect of duration and age at exposure to the Stroke Belt on incident stroke in adulthood. Neurology, [online, cited 24 April 2013] DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182904d59
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