Nearly 130,000 Americans die annually from stroke, one of the most serious brain diseases. Strokes can kill instantly and without warning, and most can be thought of as “brain attacks”—like heart attacks, but the rupturing plaques in our arteries cut off blood flow to parts of the brain rather than to parts of the heart.
About 90 percent of strokes are ischemic, from the Latin ischaemia, meaning “stopping blood.” Blood flow to part of the brain gets cut off, depriving it of oxygen and killing off the part fed by the clogged artery. A small minority of strokes are hemorrhagic, caused by bleeding into the brain when a blood vessel bursts. People who experience a brief stroke may only contend with arm or leg weakness, while those who suffer a major stroke may develop paralysis, lose the ability to speak, or die.
The blood clot may last only a moment—not long enough to notice but still long enough to kill off a tiny portion of our brain. These “silent strokes” can multiply and slowly reduce cognitive function until dementia fully develops. As with heart disease, a plant-based diet can reduce stroke risk by reducing cholesterol and blood pressure while improving blood flow and antioxidant capacity.
High fiber intake may also help ward off stroke. Fiber is naturally concentrated in only one place: whole plant foods. Processed foods have less, and animal-derived foods have no fiber at all. Increasing fiber intake by just seven grams a day may be associated with a 7 percent reduction in stroke risk.
Though stroke is considered an older person’s disease, risk factors may begin accumulating in childhood. Hundreds of kids were followed for 24 years, from junior high school to adulthood, and low fiber intake early on was associated with stiffening of the arteries leading up to the brain—a key risk factor.