CDC Director: Every 40 seconds someone in the US has a stroke. This is a wake up call, America

When Sen. Paul Coverdell went to the hospital in 2000, nobody expected a stroke would end his life just days later. He hadn’t previously suffered serious health problems, and his death at the age of 61 shocked loved ones and friends.

Many knew Sen. Coverdell by reputation as a soft-spoken and hard-working U.S. senator – and I witnessed his love for public service firsthand while serving as his health policy adviser and a founding board member for his leadership institute. But I also had the great honor to call him a friend. Although he died too young and too soon, his family may take comfort in the positive impact his death had on the quality of stroke care across the nation.

Every 40 seconds in the U.S., someone has a stroke, and more than 140,000 die each year. As a leading cause of death nationwide, many Americans have personally been impacted by stroke – which is sometimes called a brain attack and occurs when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain or when a blood vessel bursts in the brain.

As CDC’s latest Vital Signs report reveals, after decades of decline, progress in preventing stroke deaths has stalled across the nation—not only in the “stroke belt” of the South, but in three out of every four states. In addition, we’re seeing higher rates of death due to stroke among certain populations including Hispanics, blacks, and in people living in the South. While the reasons for the change in trend are unclear, we believe it’s partly due to a rise in chronic risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

We need to focus on those populations and regions at greatest risk. CDC research shows that blacks continue to be the hardest hit by stroke deaths, while Hispanics experienced a six percent increase in the stroke death rate each year between 2013 and 2015.

These findings are a wakeup call. We know about 80 percent of the strokes we see today are avoidable. For example, high blood pressure is the most important treatable risk factor for stroke. Around 75 million adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure – and only around half have their condition under control. So when it comes to addressing stroke risk factors, we can do better.

We also need to focus on those populations and regions at greatest risk. CDC research shows that blacks continue to be the hardest hit by stroke deaths, while Hispanics experienced a six percent increase in the stroke death rate each year between 2013 and 2015. And despite popular belief, stroke isn’t something that only happens to older people. Our data show an increasing number of younger adults are having strokes, which can cause lifelong disability.

Hippocrates – known as the father of medicine – first recognized stroke more than 2,400 years ago. He called it apoplexy, which means "struck down by violence" in Greek, to describe the sudden paralysis that often occurred. Today, we know much more about what causes stroke, and how to prevent and treat it. But just like in Hippocrates’ time, a stroke happens fast – and the response has to be equally as fast. That means knowing the signs and symptoms and thinking F.A.S.T: F stands for facial drooping; A represents arm weakness; S signifies speech difficulties; and T stands for time, which means call 9-1-1 immediately. 

Although Sen. Coverdell died more than 17 years ago, his legacy lives on – particularly when it comes to raising the bar on stroke care.

Through the Paul Coverdell National Acute Stroke Program, CDC provides funding to state health departments to develop and improve the “stroke system of care” – which aims to ensure stroke patients get integrated care from beginning to end; from the first symptoms, to emergency medical services transport and hospital care, to rehabilitation and medicines to prevent another stroke, and return to their own doctor.

I’m proud to say my home state of Georgia has been involved in these efforts, with a stroke registry praised for its collaboration between emergency medical services, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and primary care providers. More than 60 hospitals participate in the Georgia Coverdell Acute Stroke Registry, from local hospitals in rural areas to certified primary and comprehensive stroke centers. And there are benefits to participation. Evidence indicates that, in the years following the program’s implementation, the improvements in Georgia’s stroke care resulted in fewer stroke deaths among participating hospitals providing the highest levels of care.

We’ve made tremendous progress over the past few decades throughout the country. However, this progress in many areas has stalled, and in some cases, reversed. We cannot afford to become complacent about this health threat. It’s time to increase our efforts. We owe it to Sen. Coverdell’s memory, his loved ones, and the countless others affected by stroke. 

Brenda Fitzgerald is the Director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.