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Stroke: stop the silent killer
(Photo courtesy: Kaiser Permanente)

By James Mejia

Denver native Matt Brown was an accomplished tennis player and an avid photographer who loved listening to Bob Marley. Matt suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident over 20 years ago. Despite this, he lived the life of a renaissance man and enjoyed cheering on the Philadelphia Phillies and Oakland Raiders (much to the chagrin of his Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos friends!). Matt graduated from Denver East High School and Lewis and Clark College. This May would have been Matt Brown’s 50th birthday. Five years ago this month his life was surprisingly cut short from the effects of a stroke – often called ‘the silent killer’ because of the absence of apparent symptoms. It was never really known if there was a connection between his head injury and the stroke, although he had suffered some post-head injury seizures.

“Matt was a beloved son, brother and friend and although the head injury forever changed his life, the stroke was a complete surprise and shock,” said his sister, Stephany Brown. “There is not a day that goes by that we don’t miss him.”

Stroke is caused by a blockage or rupture in the arteries carrying blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain. According to the American Heart Association, a ‘mini-stroke’ can be caused by temporary stoppage of the flow of blood to the brain. Once thought to afflict only older people who smoked and had bad eating habits, the incidence of stroke is actually growing among much younger populations. Dr. Mitchell Elkind of Columbia University wrote for Neurology online in 2012 of the likelihood of stroke doubling every decade after the age of 50. However, he notes that while stroke has been declining for older people, stroke in individuals aged 20-54 years increased by six percentage points in a decade. [1]

Facts About Stroke

Stroke is the leading cause of adult disability and affects around 800,000 U.S. residents every year. Nearly 130,000 Americans die from stroke every year making it the 5th cause of death in the country. A stroke occurs in the United States once every 40 seconds and every four minutes, someone dies of the disease. Women are more likely to die from stroke, comprising 60 percent of stroke deaths with males making up 40 percent. [2]

Latinos and Stroke

The incidence of stroke among Latinos is higher than that for the general population. In a 2012 report, Dr. Elkind referenced a New York City stroke study from the 1990’s that showed Latinos with 2.5 times the incidence of stroke compared to the white population.

In addition, once a stroke is experienced, Latinos are more likely to suffer serious effects given a general lack of access to healthcare. According to Denverite Andrew Quintana, “My grandmother had a stroke at the age of 49 in the small town of Saguache and died, since medical facilities and treatment were poor at the time.”

Stroke is the leading disease causing disability and death that is largely preventable. Prevention is underscored by physical therapist, Anne Mejía-Downs, MPH, of Indianapolis (and the author’s sister), “75 percent of people who have a stroke have high blood pressure. Since there are often no symptoms of hypertension, many people ignore it or don’t even know they have it. Have your blood pressure checked and if you have hypertension, please treat it. Prevention is always better than treatment.”

The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Stroke Association (ASA) emphasize seven preventative factors to avoid stroke:

1) Not smoking – 14 percent of Latino men and 7 percent of Latino women are regular smokers. Both genders have a lower smoking rate than the U.S. average – 19 percent for men and 15 percent for women. Smoking exacerbates other health risk factors and leads to other ailments besides stroke.

2) Regular exercise and 3) Maintain normal body weight – These two risk factors go hand-in-hand. The National Health Interview Survey showed in a 2011 study of Mexican-Americans in south Texas, two-thirds did not have the recommended level of weekly exercise; 80 percent of Latino males and 75 percent of Latinas are overweight or obese.

4) Healthy eating and 5) Control cholesterol levels – According to the AHA, 49.3 percent of Latinos were not aware of high cholesterol. After discovering high cholesterol levels, only 29.5 percent sought treatment. Cholesterol levels can typically be moderated by healthy eating. In cases where a healthy diet does not lead to appropriate cholesterol levels, a physician should be consulted.

6) Maintain and control normal blood pressure – The Center for Disease Control notes that 26 percent of Latinos have high blood pressure, a risk factor for both heart disease and stroke. Of those with high blood pressure, only 1/3 were taking proper medication.

7) Regulate levels of blood sugar – The American Diabetes Association reports that Latinos have double the rate of diabetes compared to white Americans with high blood sugar levels as a major risk factor. The Association encourages regular exercise and healthy eating as the best ways of moderating blood sugar levels.

Stroke Expertise in Colorado

In Colorado, three hospitals have received the highest level of certification through the Joint Commission – a collaboration between the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association. St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Swedish Medical Center in Englewood and University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora have all been designated ‘Comprehensive Stroke Centers.’ These three hospitals have dedicated the most resources, technology, training and research in the state regarding stroke. In comparison, only 56 hospitals have earned this designation around the country with less than half the 50 states housing at least one certified hospital. Of Colorado’s neighboring states of Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico none have medical centers with this highest designation while Oklahoma has three and Kansas has one.

An additional 22 Colorado hospitals – from St. Mary’s and Park View Hospitals in Pueblo to St. Mary’s in Grand Junction and St. Francis in Colorado Springs – have landed the next level certification of ‘Advanced Primary Stroke Center.’ Three Colorado medical centers are named ‘Stroke Rehabilitation’ hospitals including Health South in Littleton and Northern Colorado Rehabilitation in Johnstown.

[1] Neurology, online October 10, 2012

[2] American Heart Association and American Stroke Association





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