The month of May is American Stroke Month, which is the 3rd leading cause of death in America that can lead to disability and even death among its victims. African Americans are twice as likely to die from strokes than Caucasian Americans and the rate of first strokes among African Americans is almost double that of Caucasians. Although the condition is more common among men, strokes actually kill more women each year. So what’s up? What is a stroke, what are the risk factors, 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!
What is a Stroke: Strokes are also known as “brain attacks,” occur when blood flow to the brain is suddenly interrupted. They are medically classified under the umbrella of heart disease, which is the number one killer of all Americans regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. 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: Some stroke risk factors are preventable and others are not. The risks factors that we have control over include 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 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 doctor to make better choices about the way you live.
Warning Signs: The warning signs for a stroke 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. It is recommended that anyone experiencing these signs should see their doctor immediately.
The African American Factor: 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 another major risk factor for this disease. African Americans with sickle cell anemia also run a high risk for strokes. Anybody with risk factors should see a doctor on a regular basis, eat healthy, exercise, and of course take medicines as prescribed.
Dispelling Myths: There are many myths about stroke that need to be cleared up. 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. Also life style changes like exercising, losing weight, smoking cessation, and controlling your blood pressure and diabetes. Another popular myths about strokes is that they cannot be treated and only happen to the elderly. Wrong again! Strokes can happen to persons young and old, but if the warning signs are recognized, a stroke can be treated. 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 a 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 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 strokes visit http://www.americanheart.org/, http://www.strokeassociation.org/. (c) 2006 Rani Whitfield. This article was published May 2007 at http://www.eurweb.com/