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Healthcare Disparities: The View From Harlem, NYC – Part 2

Stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the United States and the third leading cause of death. Worldwide, stroke is the second leading cause of death. Like heart disease and cancer, serious stroke disparities persist in America. African Americans have a relative risk of stroke death that is 4 times higher that whites at ages 35-54, 3 times higher at ages 55-64, and 2 times higher at ages 65-74.

The reasons for this are the focus of my two blog posts.

Over the last decade, most of the research dollars spent on stroke has focused on treatment and recovery. Researchers have spent millions trying to come up with new blockbuster treatments that reduce stroke burden or reverse it’s disabling impact. Therapeutic clot-busters have emerged with narrow time-windows within which they must be administered. Relaxing these time constraints have been the subject of even more research, and stroke recovery laboratories explore brain re-learning, neuronal plasticity, and cellular regeneration.

While I believe that we must continue to remain leaders of new and innovative treatments of disease, there is no doubt in my mind that the best return for our healthcare dollars is prevention. It is the only thing that can reign in the runaway disparities in healthcare and reduce the physical and economic burden of disease among all Americans.

But prevention is complex. It is much more challenging than administering a clot-buster or taking a cholesterol-lowering drug. Prevention involves the entire community – the whole ecosystem. It involves the child or individual, his parents and grandparents, his schoolteachers, his neighborhood stores and local parks, his local government policies, his primary care physician, his local community clinic or hospital, his employment status, his wallet, and lastly, his genes. Compare this to treatment, which involves having access to particular medical interventions such as a drug or surgical procedure.

Stroke prevention can be subdivided into primordial prevention (preventing stroke risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, from developing in the first place through healthy living), primary prevention (preventing a first stroke by treating identified modifiable risk factors like high blood pressure etc), and secondary prevention (preventing a second stroke from occurring by controlling risk factors and administering specific treatments like taking a daily aspirin or having surgery to open up clogged arteries in the neck).

For the purposes of this post, I will focus on primordial prevention. To begin, I will re-introduce the root causes of disparities outlined previously:

  • Educational status
  • Employment status
  • Insurance status
  • Income level

How do these factors influence primordial prevention? How do they interact to define ecological conditions within a specific community? How did they contribute to the young boy’s adolescent stroke? To begin, I will list factors endemic to the young boy’s environment:

1] Low Health Literacy – the “hidden dragon” of all treatable risk factors; so often underestimated and so dangerous to the beholder.

2] Unacceptable numbers of uninsured – the “crouching tiger” threatening to tear down the entire health system

3] Poor access to care – an unforgiving predicament.

4] Limited access to healthy and inexpensive food

5] Ubiquitous access to unhealthy and cheap food

6] Low levels of non-occupational physical activity or leisure-related exercise

7] High tobacco and alcohol consumption.

8] Chronic persistent stress levels that overwhelm coping mechanisms.

In a study by Mauricio Avendano and Maria Glymour, wealth and income levels were shown to be independent risk factors for stroke. Another study by Glymour, Avendano, Haas, and Berkman showed that childhood social conditions (southern state of birth, parental Socio-Economic Status or SES, self-reported fair/poor childhood health, and attained height) predicted stroke risk in black and white adults. Moreover, adjustment for adult SES, in particular wealth, nearly eliminated all the disparity in stroke risk between black and white subjects

The ecological conditions that shaped the young boy’s physical and limbic traits are examples of an uneven playing field. He was born into it – just like I was born into my little world. The sporadic binging on cheap ubiquitous fast food whenever his mom had a little money and the absence of playtime ultimately led to his childhood obesity. The complex conditioning of his limbic needs led to a psychological fragility that was encased by a shell of defensive behavior that in-turn caused truancy.  Substance abuse was around the corner waiting patiently for him. By age 15, the young boy was already a user; with open arms he was welcomed into “the hustle”. Mom was broken. One could see it in her eyes. She no longer worked. She no longer cared.  That is, until her son had a stroke when he was just 17-years-old – the day the drought ended, and she cried.

It was a hemorrhagic stroke. The high blood pressure in his brain arteries caused by accelerated atherosclerosis – the consequence of his substance abuse (tobacco, alcohol, cocaine), type-two diabetes, and undiagnosed hypertension – was what caused the stroke. The stroke was so large that it shifted half of his brain across the midline of his skull, crushing it against the inner-table on the other side.  Fortunately (some would say), the kid survived. Unfortunately, he wanted to die – 17-years-old and nursing home bound, unable to speak or swallow or move his right side.

The stroke was the final blow dealt by a cascade of disparities all too common in America.

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