The Stroke Belt

July 8, 2011 in Fitness, Health by Mary Ireland

How sad that there is a part of the country that is known as the “stroke belt.” Evidently people in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee have more strokes and are more likely to die from them than people living elsewhere in the United States.

If that isn’t bad enough, results of a new study published in the Annals of Neurology finds that Southerners in these states are more likely to experience a decline in cognitive ability. Even after researchers adjusted for other factors such as age, sex, race and education, the decrease in cognitive ability in these states was greater than the rest of the country.

Some experts believe these cognitive problems -- specifically, problems with memory and orientation -- could be related to the same underlying risk factors for stroke. The risk factors include lifestyle patterns that contribute to hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity. According to Dr. Kenneth Langa, a professor of internal medicine at University of Michigan who was not involved in the research, problems like high blood pressure and diabetes are likely to be “affecting blood flow to the brain, even if it’s not causing a visible stroke. An under supply of blood can also cause problems with brain cells that lead to cognitive decline.”

In related research, scientists at the University of Southern California now believe they may know why chronic stress has long been linked to neurodegeneration. The study published in the June issue of the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology used a rodent model and linked chronic stress - physical or mental - to high levels of the RCAN1 gene.

In rodents and humans, the RCAN1 gene helps cells cope with stress. Overproduction of RCAN1, however, can damage neurons by preventing the brain’s signals from traveling thus killing off brain function a tiny piece at a time. These small losses in brain function accumulate and become degenerative brain disease.

Currently, there are two competing theories about the leading cause of neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease: overproduction of the Amyloid beta peptide and tau hyperphosphorylation. Okay, that is really technical, but the bottom line is this research from USC suggests that too much RCAN1 is related to both and may connect the two theories of neurodegeneration.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know my passion for exercise. You know the research I have reported on the benefits of exercise in Exercise Your Options, An Ounce of Prevention, and numerous other posts. The increased blood flow to the brain and the stress reduction capacity of exercise may be big parts of exercise's effectiveness against dementia and Alzheimer Disease.

A clinical trial in Australia has shown that exercise - even as little as 30 minutes a day - can improve mental function in adults at risk of dementia. The study was published in the Sept. 3 Journal of the American Medical Association. Another study found that low cardiorespiratory fitness was associated with an increased risk for any stroke and ischemic stroke. VO2max (maximum capacity of a body to transport and use oxygen, which reflects the physical fitness of the individual) was one of the strongest predictors of stroke, comparable with other modifiable risk factors.

If you want to commit to an exercise program, but have found it difficult (or impossible) in the past, you might want to try the techniques in "The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life"

I won't even venture to guess why there is a stroke belt, but I do know the techniques in The Practicing Mind, along with exercise and Dr. Grandma's recipes will go a long way to helping individuals in the South buck the trend by reducing the risk for stroke and dementia.