Across the nation, the average prevalence of stroke for all ages is at 2.6 percent. The number rises to 8.3 percent for people over age 65.
Some states, clustered in the American South, are much higher than the national average. The Stroke belt stretches from east Texas to Northern Florida to Indiana, and all the states in between. Here, stroke mortality rates are over 10% above the national average. Why is this? There doesn’t seem to be one simple, easy-to-spot cause. African Americans, who live in greater numbers in the South than elsewhere in the country, have a greater stroke risk. An unhealthy diet can raise the chance of stroke.
Traditional Southern fare is rich with high-fat and fried foods. Thanks to that, there is a greater incidence of obesity and obesity related stroke factors like hypertension and diabetes. Tobacco use is another factor. A lot of people in the Southern states smoke, use tobacco, or consume other nicotine products. Smoking has been identified as another risk factor. Finally, there is a greater percentage of people living in rural areas far from any hospital. Couple that with more people living below the poverty line and it makes quite a big barrier to getting preventative medical care. Healthier States Lead by Example What about the states with the lowest prevalence of stroke? There is no ‘health belt’. These states are scattered around the country, places like Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota, New Jersey, and a small cluster in the New England region.
On the surface they seem diverse but they have some common factors. There is greater awareness of health risk, and understanding of how to live a healthy lifestyle. There are, on average, fewer food deserts and more farmer’s markets that offer fresh local produce. The average income in some of those states is considerably higher than in the South, which opens many doors for proactively managing good health. What Can Be Done in the Stroke Belt? The United States government has launched public health programs to reduce the number of strokes in the South. The most successful of these programs take a page from the ‘lower-stroke’ states above and focus on health education, medical initiatives, and developing health-friendly living spaces in urban and rural areas. Health Education: The goal is to teach people about nutrition. Some programs also give out recipes to keep the flavor of beloved local dishes but cut the fat and calorie content. Exercise is another important area of education. From kindergarten to retirement, the importance of getting two and a half hours of moderate exercise a week is emphasized. Stroke awareness is on the rise in the South as more people are educated on the importance of stroke prevention, the risk factors that lead to this medical emergency, and the signs that a stroke may be happening. Medical Initiatives: These range from weight loss programs, some of which are covered by insurance, to nutritional counseling services, to blood pressure screening, to programs that help quit smoking. Building a Health-friendly Future: These programs are already taking effect. School cafeterias are offering healthier meals. More produce stands and grocery stores are popping up in ‘food deserts’, offering alternatives to fast food. Urban greenspaces and rural parks are being built, making exercise more accessible. All of these little changes add up to a brighter, hopefully stroke-free future.