The phone rings bringing sad, unexpected news from one friend telling you another, seemingly healthy friend or acquaintance has died from a massive stroke. In the Black community, the details of death by stroke are far too familiar. But it is no less heartbreaking when you get the call: the deceased complained of a headache, saying they did not feel “well.” Robbed of the ability to speak of their life-threatening discomfort, your friend or family member expired, gone forever. 

According to the American Stroke Association (ASA), stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. The ASA, a division of the American Heart Association (AHA) describes a stroke as is a “brain attack that occurs when blood that brings oxygen to your brain stops flowing and brain cells die.” 

The ASA says, “Black Americans have a higher prevalence of stroke and the highest death rate from stroke than any other racial group. In particular, those who have diabetes and have an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a clot, are more likely to be black.” 

“The long-term prognosis for Black stroke survivors is dire. If an African American survives a stroke, we are more likely to be disabled and have difficulties doing daily activities.” This increased risk of stroke begs the question, why are Black individuals at higher risk for stroke? 

“Not all the reasons are clear why African Americans have an increased risk of stroke. But over two-thirds of black Americans have at least one risk factor for stroke: High blood pressure – over half of black adults have high blood pressure. It develops earlier in black Americans and is often more severe,” says AHA. Overweight and obesity are known to be contributing factors. “Almost 70% of black men and over 80% of black women are overweight or obese.” 

Diabetes is a significant contributing illness– “African Americans are more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic whites.” Other diseases disproportionately occurring in the Black community that can increase the risk for death by stroke include high cholesterol, “nearly 30% of black Americans have high levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol. Sickle cell anemia, a common genetic disorder in African Americans is a risk factor for stroke.”

Smoking is what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) calls a “completely preventable” increased risk for stroke. Despite its total prevention status, “15% of black adults smoke, doubling their risk of stroke,” says the ASA. 

The ASA singles out other preventable dietary and emotional triggers for stroke such as, “eating too much salt (sodium).” Their research shows that “African Americans may have a gene that greatly increases sensitivity to salt and its effects.” 

It is no secret that stress is one of the best biggest threats to wellness. “African American adults face daily stressors that may increase the risk for stroke,” says the AHA.

Given the high rates of stroke in the Black community, it is essential that each of us is aware of the warning signs of a stroke. The ASA says the “signs and symptoms of stroke can be different depending on what part of your brain is impacted, no matter your race.” 

The ASA’s trademarked acronym “F.A.S.T. Spot a Stroke” can help you recognize several common stroke symptoms and remember what to do. “Stroke is an emergency! Call 911 immediately if you see one or more signs of a stroke. Fast treatment can result in better outcomes.”

  • F is for Face drooping
  • A is for Arm weakness
  • S is for Speech difficulty
  • T is for Time to call 911   

The good news is an ASA study has shown that African Americans are more likely to think stroke symptoms are an emergency and to call 911.

There is more good news. The ASA has identified stroke risk factors they say that can be controlled. “Though some stroke risk factors such as age, gender, race, family history and previous stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) can’t be controlled, up to 80% of strokes may be prevented by making lifestyle changes and managing your medical conditions. 

The ASA recommends taking these steps immediately to reduce your risk for stroke: 

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Reduce salt in your diet
  • Increase your physical activity 
  • Quit smoking 
  • Lose excess body weight
  • Manage stress
  • Talk with your health care provider about your specific risk factors and how to best manage your individual risk for stroke
Jayne Hopson
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