Saturday, April 14, 2007


We are under attack!

Well, our brains are for sure, and if African Americans don’t wake up we will ultimately perish from the disease that directly attacks the brain—STROKES! The month of May is Stroke Awareness Month and with the “stroke” of my keyboard I will give you the Power to End Stroke! Strokes are the third leading cause of death among Americans and a leading cause of disability and lost days of work among adults. They are more common among men, but kill more women each year. Strokes come under the umbrella of heart disease, which is the number one killer of all Americans no matter what race, gender, or ethnicity. Heart disease, which encompasses diseases of the heart and blood vessels, claims the lives of over 96,000 African Americans each year and account for 33% of all deaths among blacks in the United States. African Americans are twice as likely to die from strokes than Caucasian Americans and the rate of first strokes in African Americans is almost double that of Caucasians. So what’s up? What is a stroke, what are the risk factors, and what are the signs and symptoms? Why are African Americans so disproportionately affected? What are the myths about stroke and how do we combat this disease? Ready? Let’s roll!

Strokes, also called “brain attacks”, occur when blood flow to the brain is suddenly interrupted. In other words, no flow-no go. There are two major causes of stroke: ischemic (is-keem-ik) and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are the most common types of stroke and are caused by blockages in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. These blockages result from cholesterol deposits that narrow the arteries; a blood clot forming in an artery (thrombus); and from clots originating somewhere else and lodging in an artery (embolus). Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain weakens and burst, allowing blood to spill out into the very restricted space between the brain and the skull. In both types of stroke, the blood flow is decreased and some part of the brain is damaged. The ability to walk, talk, speak, swallow, and even breathe normally can be affected.

Risk factors, which are the things that increase your chances of having a stroke, include things that we can and things we cannot control. The risks factors that we have control over are smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or hypertension, diabetes, physical inactivity, and obesity. The risk factors that we cannot control include age, a family history of heart disease/stroke, race, and gender. Being active has tremendous benefits, and if coupled with health eating and proper rest one can: control his/her weight, improve cholesterol levels and blood pressure, prevent bone loss, boost energy levels, improve stress levels and improve overall self image. The risk for stroke increases as we get older. African American men develop heart disease and develop it earlier, but women close that gap after age 55. Also remember that if a family member, especially your parents, brothers, or sisters have heart disease, you are at increased risk as well. So know your family history. Even though you cannot control that, it will help you and your physician make better choices about the way you should live.

Everyone, including family and friends, should know the warning signs of stroke. By knowing them you can significantly reduced the long-term effects of a stroke and possibly save someone’s life. The warning signs include: a sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; and sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Medicine and research have not clearly delineated why African Americans are more at risk than other ethnic groups, but we do know that high blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke. One in three African Americans has high blood pressure/hypertension. Diabetes also runs rampant in the African American community and is also a major risk factor for strokes. There is also a special population of African Americans, those with sickle cell anemia, who run a high risk of stroke. All patients with risk factors should see a doctor on a regular basis, eat healthy, exercise, and of course take there medicines as prescribed.

The myths about stroke need to be stated and cleared up now. Some believe that strokes are unpreventable. That is absolutely not true. Taking charge of your health and establishing a relationship with your doctor is one important step in stroke prevention, along with life style modifications like exercising, losing weight, smoking cessation, and controlling your blood pressure and diabetes. Some also feel that strokes cannot be treated and that they only happen to the elderly. Wrong again! Strokes can happen to the young and old, and if the warning signs are recognized, a stroke can be treated with very little disability. There are also those that believe that once a stroke has occurred, there are only a few months of recovery. This is also not true. Stroke recovery continues throughout life and it is possible to regain bodily function when working in conjunction with your primary care doctor, specialist (such as neurologist and physiatrist) and the treatment team that include speech therapist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and social workers.

We can take control of our health! We must learn the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, see our doctors on a regular basis, learn our family history, exercise, eat healthy, stop smoking, and take our medicines as prescribed to control diabetes and high blood pressure. We have the power! You have the power! Together we have the power to end stroke!

For more information on disparities in health care visit,

© 2007 Rani Whitfield. Published April 2007 at

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