Chocolate May Lower Men's Stroke Risk

Getty Images

Men may be able to reduce their risk of having a stroke by about one-sixth, simply by eating one chocolate bar per week.

That’s the appetizing conclusion of a large new study from Sweden, the first in a long line of recent studies on the potential heart and vascular benefits of chocolate to look specifically at men.

Researchers at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute followed more than 37,000 men between the ages of 45 and 79 for about 10 years. Compared to those who ate little or no chocolate, men who ate the most—about 2.2 ounces per week—had a 17% lower risk of having a stroke during than timespan.

To bolster these findings, the researchers pooled their data with that from four previous studies, including a near-identical 2011 study they conducted in women. A re-analysis of the combined data produced similar results: Men and women who ate the most chocolate had a 19% lower risk of stroke compared to those who ate the least.

“This was a meaningful reduction in stroke risk, and the results seem to be valid given the high number of patients,” says Jonathan Friedman, M.D., a neurosurgeon at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in Bryan–College Station. Friedman was not involved in the research.

The study, which was funded by a Swedish research council and published today in the journal Neurology, adds to the growing evidence that chocolate, or rather cocoa, has some heart-healthy properties.

Cocoa contains flavonoids, compounds that have been shown to lower blood pressure, increase “good” cholesterol (HDL), and improve the function of arteries. Flavonoids, a type of antioxidant, also may thin the blood and prevent clotting, which could help stave off heart attacks and strokes.

As the authors note, however, other substances in chocolate—or, more likely, certain traits associated with chocolate lovers—could just as easily explain the findings.

The study participants who ate more chocolate tended as a group to be better educated and healthier than their peers. They were less likely to smoke or have high blood pressure, for instance, and they were also less likely to have the heart-rate abnormality known as atrial fibrillation, a major risk factor for stroke.

Although the researchers carefully controlled for these and other health measures (such as diet, body mass index, and physical activity), it’s possible that the link between chocolate consumption and strokes can be explained by health or lifestyle differences that went undetected, says Pierre Fayad, M.D., a professor of neurological sciences at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha.

“This association could also be due to the fact that [chocolate eaters] are healthier people,” Fayad says.

This possibility is made more likely by the fact that the study participants’ chocolate consumption and overall health were assessed at a single point in time, at the very beginning of the study.

Nor did the researchers have any information on the type of chocolate the men ate—an important consideration, since cocoa content varies widely by variety, from as little as 30% in milk chocolate to 90% and up in dark chocolate. However, the study does note that 90% of the chocolate consumed in Sweden is milk chocolate.

Even though they jibe with previous research, the new findings aren’t likely to dramatically change the advice that doctors give patients about cardiovascular health. Following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and treating known risk factors such as high blood pressure will all have a bigger impact on stroke risk than chocolate consumption, Fayad says.

And when it comes to chocolate, moderation is key. As Friedman puts it, “Eating five chocolate bars a week might be worse for you in terms of obesity than it is good for you in terms of stroke risk.”

Read more:

Superfood Secrets For a Long And Healthy Life

How to Make Chocolate a Healthy Indulgence

The 10 Best Foods For Your Heart

7 Things I Learned About Stroke When My Husband Had One

Courtesy of Amanda Gardner

My husband suffered a massive stroke two years ago. Grady wasn’t that old (59, at the time) and he was in pretty good health. He was a few pounds overweight, but he wasn’t a smoker, nor did he have a family history that could help us make sense of what happened.

Luckily he survived (it was touch and go for a while there) and although he has some lingering symptoms, he continues to get better every day, even two years later.

For me, the incident shattered many of my perceptions about stroke, which strikes 800,000 Americans every year and kills 130,000. May is National Stroke Awareness Month: What better time to learn about the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S.?

Here are some major myths about stroke explained.

Only old people have strokes. False.Although the majority of strokes occur in people over 65, fully one-third occur in patients under 65, like Grady. What’s more, the rate of strokes in young people is rising, a trend largely attributed to the continuing obesity epidemic. But strokes in young people can also be caused by an underlying abnormality–like a congenital defect in the heart–that no one knew about beforehand.There’s only one kind of stroke. False.There are actually two main types of stroke. About 85% of strokes are ischemic, the result of a blockage in one of the blood vessels supplying blood to the brain. The rest are hemorrhagic strokes, basically a brain bleed that occurs when a blood vessel breaks. The risk factors for each are similar, but treatments are vastly different. After having a hemorrhagic stroke, Grady said that it was like “someone spilled coffee in my brain.”There is nothing you can do to prevent a stroke. False.Actually, about 80% of strokes are preventable by addressing major risk factors, namely weight, hypertension and high cholesterol, says Bradley White, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neuroscience and experimental therapeutics at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. “All three of those can be modified or treated successfully,” he says. Exercising more, drinking less and controlling diabetes can also reduce the risk of stroke.

Stroke symptoms are always dramatic. False.“Stroke symptoms can be as subtle as dizziness,” says Dr. White, who is also a neurosurgeon at the Texas Brain and Spine Institute in Bryan. Fortunately, though, most dizziness is due to standing up too quickly or something equally benign. More commonly, stroke manifests as droopiness on one side of the face, weakness on one side of the body and confusion and difficulty speaking. And guess what? Like heart attacks, men and women can have similar symptoms, but women can have other stroke symptoms–like hiccups–that are not as common in men.

Symptoms will go away if you just wait them out. False.Thinking you can wait out or sleep off the symptoms is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. In fact, this kind of thinking and acting could kill you. “The important thing is not only recognizing the symptoms, but also not waiting around,” says Dr. White. “It’s better to get to the ER and feel like you were foolish then not respond and end up with a permanent deficit.” Nor should you ignore what’s known as a transient ischemic stroke (TIA) or “mini stroke.” TIA symptoms are like those of a stroke–problems with walking, trouble seeing in one or both eyes, dizziness, and numbness/weakness on one side of body–but they may resolve or go away after a relatively short period of time. Although the TIA itself may not result in major damage, it increases the odds of another stroke happening within 30 days. “We take TIAs very seriously,” Dr. White says.If you don’t recover quickly from a stroke, you are doomed to have a permanent disability. False.Once upon a time, people believed that stroke survivors would stop improving after six months. Fortunately, this view has gone the way of the rotary phone. “You never stop healing and you never stop improving . . . because the brain is constantly rewiring,” says Dr. White. Grady was not expected to live yet continues to make significant improvements in both speech and motor skills at the two-year mark. It does take work, though. Luckily for me, Grady’s “real world” therapy involves doing all the cooking. “There’s no question, it takes a very active program in order to recover,” says Dr. White.

If you don’t get to the hospital in 3 hours there’s not much doctors can do for you. False.Ten years ago, experts felt that the “clot buster” drug known as tPA would only help people with ischemic stroke within three hours of the actual stroke. Now that time window has been expanded to as many as eight hours, depending on how the drug is delivered. However, says Dr. White, “it still rings true that the sooner you get there the better.” tPA will not help with a hemorrhagic stroke and, in fact, it can worsen the bleed.

Read more:

The Scary Truth About Strokes

17 Surprising Things That Affect Stroke Risk

8 Ways to Avoid Heart Attacks and Strokes If You Have Diabetes

Why You Can Quit Worrying About Your Caffeine Habit

Caffeine might be good for more than keeping you alert.

Researchers in Japan found that while drinking at least one cup of coffee a day lowered stroke risk by 20% and drinking two cups of green tea a day lowered it by 14%, the benefit from both was likely greater than either one on its own.

The drinks work in different ways: An antioxidant in green tea, catechin, has anti-clotting effects. Chlorogenic acid in coffee may lower your chance of developing type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for stroke. Aim for a cup of joe and two cups of green tea a day.

Read more:

12 Surprising Sources of Caffeine

Big Perks: Coffee’s Health Benefits

The Healing Power of Tea

4 Recipes for Coffee Lovers

Most Young Adults With Stroke Symptoms Would Delay Going to the ER

MONDAY, Jan. 11, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Immediate treatment of stroke is crucial, but a new survey finds that three-quarters of young American adults would delay going to the hospital if they had stroke symptoms.

Ideally, people with an ischemic stroke (blocked blood flow to the brain) should receive medical care within three hours to give them the best chance of restoring blood flow to the brain and minimizing or reversing stroke damage, the researchers explained.

“Timely treatment for stroke is probably more important than for almost any other medical problem there is,” Dr. David Liebeskind, professor of neurology at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, said in a university news release.

“There is a very limited window in which to start treatment because the brain is very sensitive to a lack of blood flow or to bleeding, and the longer patients wait, the more devastating the consequences,” added Liebeskind. He is also director of outpatient stroke and neurovascular programs and director of the neurovascular imaging research core at the medical center.

Treatment with clot-busting drugs must begin within three hours to have optimal effect.

For the survey, the researchers asked more than 1,000 people nationwide what they would do within three hours of having common symptoms of stroke, such as weakness, numbness, and difficulty speaking or seeing.

Among those younger than 45, only about one-third said they would be very likely to go to the hospital, the survey found. And 73 percent said they would likely wait to see if their symptoms improved.

The new findings show “a real problem,” Liebeskind said. “We need to educate younger people about the symptoms of stroke and convince them of the urgency of the situation, because the numbers are going up.”

Since the mid-1990s, strokes among people younger than 45 have risen as much as 53 percent, the study authors pointed out.

Everyone should know the signs of stroke and seek immediate medical help if they or someone else experiences them, the authors stressed.

“Believe it or not, it’s on the order of minutes or hours when somebody has to seek medical attention,” Liebeskind said. “There simply is no time to wait. It’s a message that we clearly need to get to younger people more effectively.”

The study authors added that to recognize the signs of stroke and know what to do, people should memorize the acronym “FAST,” which stands for: Face drooping; Arm weakness; Speech difficulty; Time to call 911.

More information

The National Stroke Association has more on how to recognize the signs of stroke.

Daylight Saving Time Tied to Brief Spike in Stroke Risk

By Amy NortonHealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Feb. 29, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Changing the clocks for daylight saving time may cause a short-lived spike in some people’s risk of suffering a stroke, a preliminary study hints.

Looking at a decade’s worth of stroke data, Finnish researchers found that the national incidence of stroke tended to rise slightly over the two days following daylight saving time transitions—whether the clocks were turned forward or back.

The findings do not prove that daylight saving time is to blame.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine other factors that would explain such a specific pattern, said researcher Dr. Jori Ruuskanen, a neurologist at Turku University Hospital.

Plus, he said, there is a known link between disruptions in the body’s circadian rhythms and stroke risk. Circadian rhythms refer to the shifts in the body’s biological processes that happen over 24 hours—largely in response to light and darkness.

Those rhythms can be thrown off in different ways, Ruuskanen said. Shift work and insomnia are two examples, he noted, and both have been tied to increased risks of health conditions, including stroke.

Ruuskanen is scheduled to present the findings in April at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada. Research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Dr. Andrew Lim is a neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, in Toronto, who studies sleep and circadian rhythms. He agreed that daylight saving time could plausibly affect stroke risk.

“Sleep is associated with many physiological changes that are normally thought of as being relatively protective against stroke, like lower blood pressure,” explained Lim, who was not involved in the new study.

When sleep is disrupted, he said, there may also be shifts in those protective biological processes.

For the study, Ruuskanen’s team looked at Finnish stroke figures for the years 2004 to 2013. The investigators then compared just over 3,000 people who’d been hospitalized for an ischemic stroke during the week after a daylight saving transition with nearly 12,000 people who’d suffered a stroke in the two weeks before or after a transition week.

Ischemic strokes are caused by a blood clot in an artery supplying the brain, and they account for 87 percent of all strokes, according to the American Stroke Association.

Overall, the researchers found, stroke incidence was 8 percent higher during the first two days after a daylight saving transition.

Adults older than 65 and people with cancer seemed particularly vulnerable: They were 20 percent to 25 percent more likely to have a stroke right after a daylight saving transition, versus the other time periods studied.

Ruuskanen emphasized that the study found a small increase in strokes at the population level—which means that for any one person, daylight saving time transitions would not have a big impact on stroke risk.

And it’s not that a clock change would trigger a stroke in someone who would otherwise have remained healthy. “This probably means that any ‘extra’ strokes occurring after the daylight saving change would otherwise have occurred some time later,” Ruuskanen said.

Lim agreed that the risk has to be kept in perspective. “In the big scheme of things, the increase in risk is small and transient,” he said, “and the effect of other factors, such as managing blood pressure, is more important.”

That said, Lim added, some planning may help people minimize any sleep disruptions. “It may be generally helpful to adjust gradually to daylight saving time rather than all at once,” he said.

March 13 is the day when clocks spring forward an hour this year. So, people could try going to bed and waking up 15 minutes earlier than normal on the Thursday before, Lim said. On that Friday, bump that up to 30 minutes, and then aim for 45 minutes on that Saturday, he added.

According to Ruuskanen, there is one way to prove whether daylight saving time truly contributes to strokes: “If we, in our country, abandoned daylight saving time and, in a follow-up of several years, saw that the small increase in stroke incidence disappears, it would make a strong argument that it actually is the clock change that raises stroke risk,” he said.

More information

The American Stroke Association has more on stroke risk factors.

This Woman's Potentially Fatal Brain Condition Was Misdiagnosed as Allergies

When Andrea Syron began noticing a buzzing in her ear—that later grew to a strange “whooshing”—she knew something was wrong. But for months, doctors told her it was just , a bad cold, or fluid trapped in her ear.

It wasn’t until the 36-year-old actress and model saw an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, and underwent imaging scans, that she got a correct diagnosis: an irregularity in the arteries lining her brain, called an ateriovenous malformation (AVM), that was causing the blood vessels above her ear to pulsate.

“I went for a CT scan and when it came back they saw a shadow behind my right ear,” Syron, who lives in Grand Blanc, Michigan, told the Daily Mail. “I had an MRA scan and then they discovered I had an AVM.”

Syron was relieved to know that she “wasn’t crazy,” but was faced with a new worry: AVMs can be extremely dangerous. People who have these irregular blood-vessel connections are at increased risk of a fatal brain bleed, blood clot, or —often with little or no warning beforehand.

Luckily, AVMs are treatable if doctors can identify them before one of those complications occurs. Syron had surgery two months ago to repair about half of the irregularities in or around her brain, and she may need another operation in the future. Now, the Daily Mail reports, Syron is raising awareness about the condition that turned her into a self-described “ticking time-bomb,” and the symptoms that were missed and misdiagnosed by her doctors.

To be clear, AVMs aren’t common; it’s estimated they affect about one in every 2,000 to 5,000 people. Even so, they can happen to anyone—and getting a diagnosis, as Syron was finally able to do, can be life-saving. Here are a few things to know.

RELATED: I Was Fit, Ate Healthy, and Still Had a Stroke at 41. Here’s What I Wish I Had Known

AVMs are tangles of abnormal blood vessels

In a healthy cardiovascular system, arteries carry high-pressure, oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain, and veins carry it back (low-pressure, sans oxygen) in the other direction.

But where AVMs form, those blood vessels are tangled or abnormally connected. Blood may bypass normal brain tissue, and be diverted directly from the arteries to the veins.

When this happens, the normal slow-flow of blood through the veins becomes “very fast, swirling, and turbulent,” Huy Do, MD, an interventional neuroradiologist with Stanford Health Care, tells Health. (Dr. Do is not involved with Syron’s diagnosis or treatment, but has operated on many other patients with AVMs.)

That’s dangerous, says Dr. Do, because the vein’s higher pressure can cause it to swell like a balloon. “At some point, the walls of these veins will rupture, and then the patient will have bleeding in the brain that can lead to a major stroke,” he says.

RELATED: The Early Signs of Stroke You Need to Know—Even If You’re Young

They don’t usually cause symptoms

In many ways, Syron is lucky that one of her AVMs was located just above her ear, says Dr. Do. “She was probably able to notice that fast-flowing stream of blood because it was right next to her hearing apparatus,” he says. “A lot of people don’t have symptoms at all until these things cause problems—and the number one problem they cause is bleeding.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone else with an AVM is doomed, though. , vision or nerve problems, and seizures can also be signs of an otherwise hidden AVM, and should always be taken seriously by physicians, says Dr. Do. And even if a brain bleed does occur, most are not fatal—although seeking treatment right away is very important, and some do cause permanent neurological damage.

RELATED: 17 Surprising Things That Affect Stroke Risk

Surgery can be very effective

If doctors can identify and diagnose an AVM before it’s too late, they can also treat it with surgery or embolization—a process in which parts of blood vessels are blocked off—or a combination of both. In Syron’s case, surgeons inserted a catheter into a large artery in the actress’s groin, and threaded it through her body, around her heart, and into the lining of her brain, the Daily Mail reported.

They then injected onyx, an embolization material, to close off the abnormal connections in her veins and arteries. Doctors only intended to close off three of Syron’s ten fistulas, or abnormal openings, “but the surgery was going so well my doctor, Dr. Boyd Richards, decided he was able to close off three more,” she said.

Dr. Do says it’s important for people with AVMs to know that a diagnosis is not a death sentence. “We have very good techniques and surgical procedures to treat and cure these problems and prevent life-ending or life-altering strokes,” he says.

RELATED: 15 Diseases Doctors Often Get Wrong

They’re often congenital, but not usually hereditary

Scientists don’t know why AVMs affect some people and not others. They are usually congenital, which means they form even before a person is born. And according to the American Stroke Association, they’re not usually inherited from parents or passed onto children.

Still, cases of AVMs in families have been reported. If you have a family history of hemorrhagic stroke (stroke due to bleeding), Dr. Do says it’s not a bad idea to mention this to your doctor and ask if you should be monitored with specific screenings. “Your primary care doctor might not know much about this topic,” he adds, “so you may have to be referred to a neurosurgeon or an interventional neuroradiologist who deals with and treats these problems.”

Eat clean (and save money!) this fall by signing up for our 21-Day Healthy Lunch Challenge

A healthy lifestyle is a good defense

Eating well, exercising, not smoking, and otherwise taking care of yourself won’t prevent AVMs from forming or make existing ones go away—but it can help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range, which may reduce the risk of an AVM rupturing, says Dr. Do.

“High blood pressure is a common risk factor for a lot of vascular diseases,” he explains. “I don’t think it’s been proven that high blood pressure could increase the chances of an AVM rupturing, but it makes sense that the vessels could weaken under higher pressure.”

Plus, he adds, staying fit and healthy—and getting regular physicals—can help you and your doctor stay in tune with your body and recognize anything out of the ordinary. “A good lesson here is to listen to your body, alert your doctor to any new symptoms, and get a second opinion if you still aren’t satisfied,” he says.

What Are Solar Flares and Can They Affect Your Health?

The sun’s been a bit of a show-off lately. On the heels of its magnificent total eclipse last month, yesterday it produced the biggest solar flare recorded in the last 12 years. This and other flares in recent days have caused a radio blackout and “shock arrivals” of radiation from the sun, according to NASA, as part of a geomagnetic storm expected to continue for the next few days. (Two more mid-level solar flares have been reported so far today.)

Radio blackouts and shocks of radiation sound kinda scary, and previous solar flares have caused problems like transformer explosions and widespread mobile-phone outages. So of course we wondered: What does all of this mean for our health? The good news, experts say, is probably not much.

First things first, what is a solar flare? According to NASA, it’s a sudden and intense flash of brightness that occurs when magnetic energy built up in the solar atmosphere is released. High-energy particles and a burst of ultraviolet rays are released into space, and in a few days time, can reach the Earth’s atmosphere.

RELATED: 4 Strange Ways the Moon Might Affect Our Bodies

NASA also says that these powerful bursts of radiation are nothing to worry about from a health perspective. “Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth’s atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground,” the space agency said in a statement today, “however—when intense enough—they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.”

Dale Gary, PhD, distinguished professor of physics at NJIT’s Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research, agrees with NASA’s reassuring statement. “There are potential health effects for anyone exposed to that high-energy radiation, but actually we are protected because those rays and particles get absorbed into our atmosphere,” says Gary.

People on airplanes flying at high altitudes over the poles might be at increased risk for some of this radiation, Gary continues, and he says that occasionally, flight routes are changed during periods of unusual solar activity to protect against this. But for anyone on the ground, he says, there’s not much to worry about.

In addition to a large dose of radiation, however, solar flares also cause fluctuations in magnetic fields, which can reach the earth’s surface. “These take a couple days to get here, but when they arrive they can interact with our magnetosphere,” says Gary. “That can induce currents in our power lines, and when that happens, transformers can blow or power outages can occur.”

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter

According to National Geographic, scientists predict that one of these strong storms will hit our planet tomorrow, September 8. People in high-latitude regions may also be treated to brilliant auroras, or visible lights in the sky, over the next few days. 

Still, these storms probably won’t cause any health problems—except that there could be safety issues if the power goes out, Gary says. GPS and traffic-light outages could make for risky driving, for example, or hospitals could theoretically lose access to health data.

Not everyone is convinced that solar flares are harmless, however. A 2014 study published in the journal Stroke found a link between geothermal storms and stroke risk among people in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden. The study compared 11,453 hospital reports with daily geomagnetic activity over a 23-year period, and found that geomagnetic storms were associated with a 19% increased risk of overall, and a 27% increased risk among adults under 65.

The study could not show a cause-and-effect relationship, and the researchers—from the Aukland University of Technology, the University of Aukland, the University of Oxford, and other institutions—did not have detailed information for all participants about their traditional cardiovascular risk factors. But they speculate that magnetic fluctuations could have an effect on blood pressure, heart rate, blood clotting ability, or circadian rhythms, any of which could have an effect on stroke risk.

RELATED: 17 Surprising Things That Affect Stroke Risk

Gary, for what it’s worth, has his doubts. “The change in magnetic field we’re talking about is really small,” he says: “If you think of the magnetic field that causes your compass needle to point north, we’re talking about a tenth of a percent of that fluctuation.” Those tiny changes are amplified by our giant power grid, he says, but they’re unlikely to have an effect on an individual human body.

Even if the study’s assumptions are correct, geomagnetic storms only accounted for less than 3% of all strokes during the study’s timeframe. Considering nearly 17 million strokes occur around the world every year, however, that’s almost half a million people. “Although the effect of geomagnetic activity alone is modest,” the authors wrote in their paper, “in combination with other risk factors, it could be extremely important.”

The authors suggest that geomagnetic storm warnings be announced along with weather reports, and that doctors and patients should pay closer attention to controlling conventional risk factors for stroke during the days leading up to these types of solar events. These actions, they say, may reduce stroke incidence on a global level.