By Karen Stokes
During National Stroke Awareness Month, the CDC convened a briefing attended by prominent scientists and public health leaders to unveil recent stroke-related data and delve into the real-world implications of stroke in the United States.
Stroke stands as the fifth leading cause of both death and long-term disability in the country. A recent CDC MMWR study discovered that stroke-related disparities among Black and White adults persisted, and even exacerbated, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the US we know that the number of deaths due to stroke increased during the pandemic. Currently Black adults have the highest rate of stroke deaths in the US. Death rates for Black adults are 50 percent higher than those of white adults. Black adults have a higher rate of risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes,” said Adam Vaughan, PhD, MPH, MS, Deputy Associate Director for Science, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke.
Although strokes commonly affect older adults, a significant proportion occurs in individuals under 65. Approximately one in seven strokes occur in adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 49. Experts attribute this trend to the increasing prevalence of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes among younger populations.
ShantaQuilette Carter-Williams, a stroke survivor, shared her firsthand experience to shed light on the profound impact of stroke.
“Before experiencing heart health problems at the age of 34, no one had ever warned me about the risk of heart disease and stroke or about how the real risk would affect me personally. I remember the exact moment when it all started. I was running on the treadmill when I started to feel my heart flutter, like a lot of people do, especially women, I brushed it off. I was an active, healthy woman in my prime. I had a thriving although stressful career as a tax accountant. I had a family that loved me and relied on me. I knew something was abnormal so I visited the doctor that diagnosed me with exercise and told me to be careful when increasing my heart rate.”
“That was in 2012. Over the next six years I experienced various symptoms including chest pain that prompted me to go to the emergency room several times. In June 2018, I experienced back pain, stomachache and nausea, I thought it was the flu. Then I felt a bizarre pain that shot down the left side of my jaw and my neck. My daughter drove me to the emergency room, after several tests, the doctor said, “I don’t want to scare you but you’re having a heart attack.” All I could see was the prospect of not seeing my children graduate or get married. I was transferred to a cardiologist who discharged me a few days later with no medication.”
“Nine months later I collapsed at work and woke up in the hospital where I was informed that I had a stroke. That’s when my life changed. That stroke led me to seek answers. I learned that cardiovascular disease runs in my family including my mother, two first cousins that had heart attacks and one that had a massive stroke at the age of 36. No one had told me about my family history, I learned about how my undiagnosed hypertension and some of my lifestyle habits made matters worse,” she said.
Risk of having a first stroke is nearly twice as high for Black adults as for White adults and Black adults and Pacific Islander adults have the highest rates of death due to stroke.
“I became aware of how much Black adults are disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease. The journey wasn’t an easy one. I required significant cognitive, physical and speech therapy to recover from that stroke,” Carter-Williams said. “Some aspects of my cognitive ability have never recovered.”
Risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, and diabetes play a significant role in the occurrence of strokes. Alarmingly, one in three U.S. adults currently has at least one of these conditions or habits. Carter-Williams, now a more informed patient, has taken proactive measures to improve her health. She has adopted lifestyle changes that include managing work stress, prioritizing exercise, making healthier food choices, and practicing self-care.
The findings presented during National Stroke Awareness Month highlight the urgent need to address the widening disparities in stroke outcomes, particularly among Black adults. Increased awareness, early detection, and targeted interventions to manage risk factors are paramount to reducing the burden of stroke and preventing long-term disabilities.
“I am so blessed to have lived, I finally got the knowledge, treatment and care that I needed. This is preventable. I’m the CEO of my health,” Carter-Williams said.