African Americans and Stroke!

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African American CoupleThe cardiovascular system is just as important to brain health as it is to heart health.  If you have a blockage in one of the arteries of the heart we call it a heart attack.  If that same blockage occurs in the brain it’s a stroke.  All people are susceptible.  This is especially true if you do a poor job addressing the health of your endothelial cells that line all of the cardiovascular system.  

Unfortunately, for African Americans the risk for stroke is even greater.  This article will address this health challenge and lay the ground work for reducing this health risk. 

You Have the Power to Make a Significant Change! 

It’s estimated that 750,000 Americans will experience a stroke this year.  Of this number, 160,000 will die.  The rest will forever have their lives changed in significant and profound ways.  

  •       African Americans are twice as likely to die from a stroke as Caucasians. 
  •       The rate of having their first stroke is almost doubled that of Caucasians.
  •       One half of all African American women will die from either a stroke or heart disease. 
  •       For those with sickle cell anemia, 11% will have experienced a stroke by the age of 20.   

For African Americans this risk for a stroke can be pretty depressing until you read the next line: 

“… 80% of strokes are preventable!”

That’s not me saying this but the National Stroke Association.  This statement means that 600,000 Americans could prevent their strokes from occurring.  You have the power to make a significant difference in reducing the risk of stroke.  But before we look at how to reduce the risk it’s important to understand why the risk is so great for African Americans. 

Why African Americans and Not Other Races? 

Although all the exact reasons are not completely clear, when you look at the risk factors for stroke, the African American community has a higher rate of: 

  • High Blood Pressure.  The number one risk factor for stroke is high blood pressure, and 1 out of every 3 African Americans suffers from high blood pressure. 
  • Diabetes.  People with diabetes have a higher risk for a stroke.  The African American community suffers with a higher percentage of people with this ailment. 
  • Sickle Cell Anemia.  1 out of every 12 African Americans has sickle cell trait and 1 out of every 400 births result in the child having sickle cell anemia.  As the oval-shaped red blood cells change into rod-shaped, sickle cells, they can block blood vessels to the brain resulting in a stroke. 
  • Lifestyle Factors.  Obesity and smoking are two other factors that can increase the risk for stroke.  Unfortunately, African Americans have a higher incidence for being overweight and smoking. 
  • Genetic Polymorphism.  Inherent to the African American population is a genetic polymorphism.  This causes African Americans to have higher levels of an enzyme called arginase in their blood stream.  Arginase destroys L-arginine which is the main ingredient for creating nitric oxide in the body.  Nitric oxide is a signaling molecule.  It causes the smooth muscle in the blood vessel wall to relax allowing for better blood flow.  Nitric oxide is a critical component for all cardiovascular function. 

As you can see from the above list, the health of African Americans is compromised in several key areas.  This can seem overwhelming and depressing until you remember that: 

“… 80% of strokes are preventable!” 

This means you can take steps on the front end to prevent a stroke.  You can also take steps after you’ve had a stroke to prevent an additional one.  The key is to concentrate on reducing the risk factors that you have control over.  

Risk Factors:  Uncontrollable vs. Controllable! 

Everyone has some level of risk for having a stroke.  Some of the risk factors are controllable.  Some of the risk factors are not.  Let’s first look at the uncontrollable health risk factors for African Americans and stroke: 

  • Age.  Although a stroke can happen at any time, your risk increases with age.  After 55, the risk for a stroke doubles for every decade.  Although you have no control over your chronological age, you do have the ability to reduce your biological age.    
  • Gender.  A stroke is more common in men but more lethal in women. 
  • Race.  The African American health risk for a stroke is twice the rate of Caucasians.  Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders are also at a higher risk than Caucasians. 
  • Family History.  If someone in your family has had a stroke, then you’re at a higher risk.  Part of this could be genetics.  Part could be lifestyle.  You have no control over the genetics but you certainly have control over your lifestyle. 
  • Previous Stroke or TIA.  If you’ve had a stroke or TIA then your chance of having another stroke in the next 5 years is 25 to 40% depending upon your gender.

As you can see from the above list, there are certain health factors that you have little to no control over.  The good news is that you have multiple ways to offset these uncontrollable risk factors.  For this article I’m only going to list the health factors that you can control.  The article “11 Action Steps on How to Prevent a Stroke!” will go into greater detail.  For now, here are the controllable risk factors:

  • Control High Blood Pressure.  High blood pressure increases stroke risk 4-6 times.  It’s the #1 risk factor for a stroke and you have the power to positively impact this area. 
  • Control Heart Disease especially Atrial Fibrillation (AF).  Atrial fibrillation can cause blood to collect in the upper chambers of your heart increasing the opportunity for blood to form clots to causes a stroke. 
  • Stop Smoking.  Smoking doubles the risk for stroke. 
  • Control Alcohol Consumption.  Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as one glass of wine or beer or one drink each day.  There is some research to suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may lower your risk for stroke provided that there are no other medical reasons for avoiding alcohol.  But, once you increase to heavy alcohol consumption, everything changes and your risk increases substantially. 
  • Control Your Cholesterol.  Lowering your cholesterol may have a positive effect on reducing your risk for stroke.  It will certainly reduce your risk for heart disease which is another major African American health issue. 
  • Control Your Diabetes.  Having diabetes increases your risk for stroke.  Controlling your blood sugar can reduce this risk while improve your overall health and wellness.  However, sugar causes oxidative stress on the endothelial cells which decreases their ability to produce nitric oxide.  So preventing or reducing this oxidative stress is critical for reducing the complications from diabetes. 
  • Control Your Weight Through Diet, Exercise and Nutrition.  The “Super Size Me” fast food lifestyle has created a “Super Sized” population of overweight and obese people.   This additional weight increases your risk for a stroke, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, cancer and other African American health issues. 
  • Check for Other Circulatory Problems.  It’s important to have your carotid arteries checked by a qualified physician on a regular basis.  The carotid arteries carry blood from the heart to the brain and can narrow from the build up of cholesterol and other plaque forming substances.  This leads to reduced blood flow and increases the risk for blood clots and blockages.

 Common Stroke Symptoms! 

Learning these symptoms and knowing what to do when they occur could save your life or the life of someone else.  (Note:  The article Replace Your ABCs With STR And It Could Save Your Life When the Signs of a Stroke Occur! is a must read.)  These are the most common stroke symptoms:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg especially if it occurs 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.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause. 

If you have or see anyone who has these symptoms, then call 911 immediately.  Time is critical in decreasing the effects of a stroke.  Currently, there is a clot busting drug that can diminish the effects of a stroke.  However, this drug only has a three-hour window to be effective.  Once the stroke symptoms occur the clock starts ticking.  Your quick response could be the difference between life or death, permanent disability or significant recovery. 


Stroke is the number one cause of adult disability.  Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States.  For the African American community, the effects of a stroke are significantly greater.  But it’s important to remember what the National Stroke Association says,  

“… 80% of strokes are preventable!” 

Please join me in helping the African American community take a proactive step in reducing this health risk.  Please email this article to a friend.  In fact, make it your goal to share this with at least 5 others.   

I would also invite you to click on Stroke Warning Sign – The STR Poster!  Print this poster and post it wherever African Americans gather.  You could save a life because you took a positive step to help reduce the risk for African Americans and stroke. 

Together we can work to save a million lives! 

Dan Hammer 

Dan Hammer has a background in biology, chemistry and exercise physiology.  He used to run one of the largest health club operations in the Chicagoland area and has been helping people with their wellness issues for more than 25 years.   
The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only and never as a substitute for professional medical advice or medical exam.  The information contain in this article has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease without the supervision of a qualified medical doctor.
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