On the morning of December 10, 1996, brain researcher Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had a major stroke. She recounted the incident in a 2008 TED Talk that’s now been viewed more than 27 million times.

“In the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information,” she said. “I could not walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of my life. I essentially became an infant in a woman’s body.”

Dr. Bolte Taylor’s experience brought her insight into the inner workings of the brain in a trauma state, leading her to write a book, My Stroke of Insight, about how the brain works, especially under trauma. The Harvard-trained brain scientist's story may be harrowing but it is hardly unique, even at her young age of 37. While her experience sounds like a rare phenomenon, Taylor's stroke is startlingly common: Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the third leading cause among women. One out of every six deaths was the result of a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And women are more often the victims, the CDC reports. Stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer.

Nearly 800,000 people will have a stroke this year, with more than 600,000 of those first-time or new stroke events. and more than one-third of all stroke victims are under the age of 65. At least 87 percent of strokes are classified as ischemic strokes, meaning they happen because blood flow to the brain becomes restricted or blocked. And as dire as that sounds, if you’re an optimist, it’s actually got a bit of a silver lining. The leading causes of ischemic strokes are lifestyle-related. Consider: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and tobacco use are listed as the leading causes of the most common types of strokes.

One in three adults has at least one of these habits or conditions, so if there is some upside, it is that we can change our risk by changing our diet and lifestyle habits. And even with the relatively small inherited risk of ever suffering a stroke, just like a genetic predisposition for high cholesterol or high blood pressure, the risk can all be mitigated with lifestyle changes.
The data may also explain why strokes are more common and more deadly among the Black population, which is nearly twice as likely to suffer strokes as Whites. Strokes among Hispanics are increasing since 2013, according to the CDC. These statistics mirror issues surrounding access to healthy food and the prevalence of "food deserts" in communities of color.

Diet and Stroke Risk

For those at risk of ischemic strokes, avoiding a major event may be as simple as making dietary changes. That’s according to new research on a plant-based diet and stroke risk. The study, coming out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that people eating healthy, plant-based diets — those rich in whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, particularly leafy greens — decreased their stroke risk by up to ten percent. The research is published in the recent issue of the journal Neurology.

“Our findings have important public health implications, suggesting that future nutrition policies to lower stroke risk should take the quality of food into consideration,” said the study’s lead author Megu Baden, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Nutrition.

The researchers looked at a substantive amount of data, collected from more than 200,000 men and women as part of the three-decades-long Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

Researchers classed the study participants by their diets, including vegetarian and plant-based diets. The group identified as plant-based, which also included avoiding excessively processed and sweetened foods, were 10 percent less likely to experience a stroke than other groups, including those that consumed eggs and dairy. The plant-based eaters saw a notable reduction in the prevalence of ischemic strokes. (Hemorrhagic strokes, where an artery in the brain leaks or ruptures, was not impacted by diet in this study.)

The link between diet and stroke risk has long been established. The CDC has recommended avoiding foods high in saturated fats, trans fat, sodium, and cholesterol.

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The Health Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet

"[I tell patients] to fill their plates with predominately plant-based foods rich in nutrients such as potassium, fiber, and magnesium, which helps reduce plaque formation, blood pressure, inflammation, and formation of clots," Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD, clinical dietitian and the author of The Nourished Brain, told Verywell. "With less plaque buildup and reduced blood pressure along with other lifestyle changes, the lower the risk of having a stroke.”

A 2019 study published in the Journal of American Heart Health found a plant-based diet to be associated with a nearly 25 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and a 19 percent decrease in mortality.

That research looked at four dietary patterns among adults and concluded that more plant-based foods in the diet were of benefit; higher levels of fiber along with the decreased presence of saturated fat were pointed to as indicators.

For the new study on stroke risk, the findings were similar. “Many individuals have been increasing the amount of plant-based components in their diet,” said Kathryn Rexrode, associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and co-author of the paper. “These results show that higher intake of healthy plant-based foods may help reduce long-term stroke risk and that it is still important to pay attention to diet quality of plant-based diets.”

Another study published by Harvard a year earlier that looked at diet and women's risk found: "A diet higher in red and processed meats, refined grains, and sweets and desserts may increase stroke development, especially ischemic stroke. On the other hand, a diet higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish may protect against stroke. Because similar risk associations were observed previously with coronary heart disease and colon cancer, it is advisable to avoid the Western dietary pattern to lower risk of these diseases."