African-Americans more susceptible to stroke

June 15, 2012
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Strokes can strike people within any age group and ethnicity, but African-Americans – or those with sickle cell anemia – should take extra precautions to curb their chances for a stroke, say members of the American Heart Association.

Strokes occur when blood clots cut off vessels and limit the amount of oxygen to the brain.

“Your brain can’t live without oxygen, and blood carries oxygen,” said Janice Henry, chair of the Minority Health Council at the American Heart Association. “When the vessels are blocked, or they burst and that part of the brain can’t get oxygen, then that part of the brain dies.”

When part of the brain dies that causes disabilities, such as the loss of movement in arms, legs, hands, other serious damage or death.

There are different types of strokes, Henry said, but most people have transient ischemic attacks, or mini strokes. This happens when a blood clot cuts off oxygen to the brain, but breaks up on its own.

Major strokes, or hemorrhagic strokes, happen when blocked blood vessels burst and spill blood into the brain.

In Chicago, about 34 percent of deaths are caused by heart disease and stroke, according to the most recent data from Chicago’s Department of Public Health, said John Jaramillo, spokesman for the American Heart Association.

And African-Americans have a much higher risk of death from a stroke than Caucasians, he said.

“This is partly because blacks have higher risks of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity,” Jaramillo said.

Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease are the main precursors to a stroke, Henry said.

Sickle cell anemia, which impacts mostly African-Americans, also goes hand-in-hand with strokes.

David Curry, 63, an Austin resident, said he’s not sure what caused his mini stroke last September. He was using the washroom one evening and couldn’t get up, because his left side felt paralyzed.

Curry said he couldn’t believe he was having a stroke, but his wife told him his speech sounded slurred and he should go to the hospital. Curry’s wife is also a stroke survivor.

“Me being a man, I was saying, ‘No, I didn’t need to go to the hospital,’” he said. “I didn’t realize it was a stroke I had.”

He went to bed, and when he woke up in the morning, his left side was still paralyzed and he couldn’t move. That’s when he called an ambulance.

Curry has mostly recovered from his stroke, but he still has trouble using his left, dominant hand, especially for writing.

He doesn’t recommend trying to wait out the symptoms like he did.

“Go to the hospital immediately,” he said.

After having a stoke, Curry said it’s important to exercise the parts of the body that are weak and to take the necessary medicine.

“I’m still taking medicine,” he said, adding that he’s on blood thinners and water pills, among other prescriptions. “If it’s going to help me live and not have another stroke, then I’m gong to take them.”

Curry said his wife had a stroke a few years before he did.

“She kept asking me what day it is,” he said. “I didn’t even realize she had a stroke until we went to hospital and found out she did. That scared me more so than my stroke, because I’ve been with her for 41 years.”

Stroke risk goes up significantly after age 55, Jaramillo said.

“More specifically, the chance of having a stroke approximately doubles for each decade of life after age 55,” he said.

While stroke is common among the elderly, a lot of people under 65 also have strokes, Jaramillo said.

“Stroke doesn’t discriminate by age, but risk increases as one gets older,” he said.

Some signs that someone is having a stroke include sudden blanking of the memory, trouble walking, slurred speech, losing balance and severe headaches.

To prevent strokes, it’s important individuals know their family history and don’t smoke because smoking constricts oxygen flow, Henry said. Exercising, eating healthy and keeping cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes under control is also important.

Strokes are severe and can cause irreversible damage or death, she added.

“People have to understand that this is serious,” Henry said.

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