For four decades, the heart community could crow that deaths related to stroke events were on the decline. Progress in this heart disease sector has now slowed down. According to new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stroke death rates have stalled in three out of every four states nationally. This is especially disturbing because stroke–related deaths among Hispanics and people living in the southern belt of the U.S. (often called “the stroke belt”) are increasing. According to the CDC, 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
Almost 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year, and 140,000 die from stroke-related causes yearly. The single most treatable cause of stroke is high blood pressure or hypertension. It is also called the silent killer because most individuals are not even aware that they have hypertension. That means YOU could have it – and not even know. The key to lowering stroke rates is diagnosing and treating hypertension as well as preventing it through lifestyle efforts.
Some key points offered in the CDC report include:
- After decades of decline, the progress in preventing stroke deaths has slowed.
- African Americans continue to have the highest stroke death rates among all races/ethnicities.
- Stroke death rates increased among Hispanics by 6 percent each year from 2013-2015.
- The decline in stroke death rates slowed in 38 states (about three out of four states and the District of Columbia) from 2000 through 2015.
- Recent studies also suggest that over the last 15 years younger adults (ages 18-54) have had increases in stroke hospitalizations, along with increases in stroke risk factors among those hospitalized with stroke.
Currently, stroke is the 5th leading cause of death and a leading cause of serious, long-term disability, with an estimated cost of $34 billion annually. When stroke happens, parts of the brain become damaged and can start to die within minutes, which is why it is crucial to diagnose and treat strokes within the first minutes of the event.
What’s most worrisome is that strokes are being diagnosed at younger and younger ages. Explanations for this include escalating rates of obesity (and diabetes) among children, teens and young adults, which may be driving higher rates of hypertension, high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. A recent study linked diet soda consumption to higher stroke risk.
The typical American diet can itself be a driver with its heavy doses of saturated fats, sodium and sugars. We may also be missing diagnosing risk factors in middle age adults (high blood pressure, obesity, tobacco use, high cholesterol and physical inactivity). Women have more stroke risk factors than men.
In fact, more evidence is mounting suggesting that exercise is linked to lower stroke risk.
A new study published in the journal Stroke found that moderate intensity exercise seems to be linked with increasing blood flow to the brain. Increasing cerebral blood flow improves the health and function of the brains and lowers stroke risk by keeping cerebral arteries patent and flexible. One thing that’s clear is that individuals are more likely to “do exercise” if they enjoy it. We now also know that even home activities like vacuuming and mowing the lawn can contribute to the 150 minutes of moderate level, weekly exercise, recommended by the American Heart Association.
It’s not just doctors who play a role in helping to identify individuals with high blood pressure or other risk factors. Consumers interact on a regular basis with nurses, Physician Assistants, nurse practitioners, rehabilitation specialists, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), pharmacists, and other health professionals and they too can help address stroke risk factors, identify individuals at high risk, and improve patient outcomes if a stroke occurs.
F for face drooping
A for arm weakness
S for speech difficulty
T for time to call 9-1-1 if these signs or other common symptoms are apparent.
The CDC is engaged in efforts to reduce stroke-related deaths by working closely with partners on the Million Hearts initiative and the Paul Coverdell National Acute Stroke Program. These national initiatives focus on reducing risk factors and improving stroke care on a local and national level.
Million Hearts, is a national initiative co-led by the CDC and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The goal is to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by the year 2022. Aspects of the plan are to optimize people’s health, make clinical care accessible and affordable, and specifically to focus efforts on priority populations (Hispanics, African Americans, individuals with risk factors, and lower socio-economic communities nationally).
The recommendations in the CDC report emphasize the importance of increasing efforts to reduce stroke deaths. This can be accomplished by identifying risk factors, looking at specific geographic trends that raise the risk of strokes and by identifying and examining other factors that may be driving the noted stall.
What can you do to lower your risk of having a stroke?
- Lose any excess weight especially if it is located in your abdominal area
- Commit to an exercise program and at minimum meet the goal of 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly
- Follow one of the recommended eating programs like DASH or a Mediterranean-style food plan
- Lower sodium in your diet and find out if you are salt-sensitive
- Track and limit saturated fat consumption
- Stop smoking
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Manage stress
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”