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Stroke: The Silent Killer

Too many people die from it. Here's how to reduce the risk.

WebMD Feature

April 17, 2000 (Great Falls, Mont.) -- The numbers are startling: Every 53 seconds someone in the United States suffers a stroke, and someone dies from one every 3.3 minutes. Strokes afflict a half million people each year, killing about a third of them and disabling another 200,000, according to the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association.

Right now, three million survivors are living with the life-altering consequences of strokes, including Connie Bentley of Portland, Ore. A cardiologist prescribed medication for her high blood pressure 10 years ago, but because the pills made her sleepy, she stopped taking them. After all, Bentley, now aged 49, was in peak shape at the time: She lifted weights three days a week and ran four miles on alternate days.

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"I didn't think I needed medication because I was staying healthy by exercising," says Bentley. So she told herself she could quit the medicine, at least for now, and perhaps resume it in her 50s or 60s when she might not be able to exercise as intensely. Then, two years ago, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left arm and leg. Since then, she has learned to walk again, and now lifts light weights.

The Costs of High Blood Pressure

Would Bentley have avoided a stroke if she'd stayed on her medication? Perhaps. A study published in the February 2000 issue of the journal Stroke reports that many strokes could be prevented if closer attention were paid to those with hypertension (elevated blood pressure). Hypertension is considered the most common and controllable of stroke risks, so when blood pressure increases to a consistent reading of more than 140/90, doctors usually begin to treat it with medication. For some people, however, the medications don't always lower their pressure enough, and they need to be switched to other medicines or a different dose. And some people, like Bentley, stop taking the medication and don't bother to tell their doctors.

The price of uncontrolled blood pressure is great, according to internal medicine physician Bruce Psaty, MD, PhD, and his colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle, who conducted the study. They monitored 555 patients who had strokes despite taking blood pressure-lowering drugs. The researchers also evaluated nearly 3,000 control patients who were also treated for high blood pressure but did not have strokes. Their findings were striking. Blood pressure was found to be inadequately controlled in 78% of those who had ischemic strokes (in which a lack of oxygen damages brain tissue), in 85% of those with hemorrhagic strokes (in which blood vessels in the brain burst), and in 65% of the controls.

Psaty and his team concluded that uncontrolled high blood pressure raised the odds for ischemic stroke 1.5 times and for hemorrhagic stroke 3.0 times, compared to controls. And the higher the blood pressure, the greater the stroke risk in both men and women, regardless of age. Overall, they estimate that a third of strokes could have been avoided by better control of blood pressure.

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