What is most surprising is that high triglycerides exceed high cholesterol — their cousins — in being the single biggest risk factor for a stroke. Strokes involve the sudden loss of blood flow to an area of the brain. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 800,000 Americans suffer one each year. Stroke is the third-leading cause of death for all adults in the U.S., with 140,000 deaths per year.
The most common type is “ischemic,” accounting for more than 80% of all strokes. It is this to type of stroke that triglycerides have just been strongly linked, which is when blood clots obstruct blood vessels to the brain.
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Abnormal triglyceride levels have long been linked to heart disease and atherosclerosis (plaque buildup inside arteries). Until this study, though, we didn’t know if they were independently related to stroke risk in one particular group of people. So they turned to the large, ongoing Women’s Health Initiative, which counts 90,000 postmenopausal women and has been tracking them for 15 years.
One segment represents 972 women who experienced an ischemic stroke while participating in the study. These women were matched with 972 health controls and blood samples were analyzed. They discovered that women with the highest triglyceride levels were nearly twice as likely to have suffered an ischemic stroke as women in the lowest quarter. Amazingly, levels of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol were not associated with stroke risk.
This is highly significant, as cholesterol has long trumped triglycerides as a way that doctors tell if you are healthy or not. More and more evidence is showing that triglycerides are incredibly important. It looks like we should lower our levels to reduce risk of stroke.
This is especially vital for postmenopausal women. Elevated triglyceride levels can be triggered by genetic factors or behavioral habits, but can be successfully treated with medication and dietary and lifestyle changes. Work with your doctor to develop a plan of action, but know that it involves eating nutritiously, not smoking, drinking alcohol only in moderation, and exercising daily.