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Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., with 800,000 people having a new or recurrent stroke each year. Contrary to popular belief, stroke does not just happen to the elderly. Anyone can have a stroke, which happens when blood flow to an area of the brain is reduced or cut off, causing brain cells to die. This occurs either because a blood clot blocks the blood flow or a blood vessel leaks or bursts.
Symptoms of stroke can include slurring speech, confusion, paralysis or numbness of the face, arm or leg, a sudden severe headache, trouble seeing in one or both eyes and difficulty walking. Depending on how severe the stroke is, the person can have mild problems such as temporary weakness of one of their limbs, or more severe, permanent effects such as paralysis on one side of the body or loss of the ability to speak. More than two thirds of people who have a stroke have some form of permanent disability.
Along with heart attack, stroke is the cause of many premature deaths in people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). One study found that people with RA had a 67 percent higher risk of stroke than those without, though it remains unclear to what extent arthritis is an independent risk factor for stroke. The connection appears to be inflammation. Similar to heart disease, some studies show that inflammation, including the type that is associated with arthritis and systemic lupus erythematous, increases a person’s risk for stroke.
Additional risk factors for stroke include high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure and carotid artery disease (in which the carotid arteries in your neck, which supply the brain with blood, become narrowed due to the build-up of plaque). If someone with RA has any of these other conditions, the risk of stroke becomes even higher.
People with RA should take care to reduce their risk of stroke, along with all forms of heart disease, by addressing the risk factors they can control – not smoking, losing weight, working to achieve healthy cholesterol levels, eating a balanced diet and exercising.