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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000351615.35679.e4
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The Roots Of Stroke

Stephens, Stephanie

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Actress Cicely Tyson Lends Her Talents To The “Power to End Stroke” Campaign

The lady has presence. When she speaks, she commands the room. In her newest role as the American Stroke Association's “Power to End Stroke” Ambassador, renowned actress, activist and humanitarian Cicely Tyson speaks out about the high incidence of stroke among black Americans — and she hopes they'll speak up among themselves about how to control high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity, obesity and other risk factors.

Wielding persuasive influence is nothing new to Tyson who has won two Emmys® in 1974 for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, earned an Oscar® nomination for Sounder and a dizzying array of international awards and accolades — including several honorary degrees. “I would like to know that when my tenure is up that I have reached thousands of people,” the plainspoken Tyson says with conviction.

To begin with, Tyson self-identifies as “black,” rather than as “African-American,” because, “there are whites [who] are also African-American.” She adds, “What I would like to do, and have tried to do, is to make people of the black race aware of the fact that they are gradually destroying their lives by plain old ignorance.”

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“[I]n the South, meals were social events for the most part, and so they were the most lavish ... Most of our ancestors were great cooks so when we sat down to a meal, it was actually a feast, not only visually but sensually. ... We used a lot of saturated fat ... in the preparation of our meals. We made wonderful peach cobblers, coconut cakes — all very rich foods, all to the detriment of our well-being,” Tyson explains.

“We eat to satisfy the palate rather than to nutritionally feed our body,” she adds, noting that even when someone is in danger of becoming obese or developing high blood pressure, these eating habits are tough to change.

But, she acknowledges, “you can't change things overnight,” and counsels patience and willingness to learn.

“When I learn that something is not good for me, I can cut it with a knife. Don't tell me more than once.”

One thing Tyson did not have to change: She's always been a bundle of energy (her late mother, Theodosia Tyson, called her “hyper”). “I had kinetic energy all the time,” says Tyson. “I have always exercised, always been an active person.”

Every morning as soon as she awakens, she downs four 8-oz. glasses of water, heads downstairs to the gym and bangs out 100 push-ups.

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This professed “lover of life” wants us all to live each day to the fullest. Her secret: “Eat well, get enough rest and nourish the body to allow it to heal itself when it's not right.”

One reason Tyson wants to educate blacks about preventable risk factors for stroke is because she knows how painful it is when a loved one dies needlessly — perhaps before his or her time. Tyson's own mother, who had high blood pressure, died at age 81 of a massive heart attack, and she recalls finding unopened “tamper proof” medications in her home. To this day, Tyson wonders if her mother just couldn't open them, and was embarrassed to ask for help.

“We only have one life to live, and we must honor that life. We have got to learn to talk about things, to talk about illness or things we are uncomfortable about,” says Tyson. “It's the only way you can get help.”

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Power To You

Cicely Tyson wants you to know there are stroke risk factors you can't control and others you can manage.

These are the stroke risk factors you can't change:

RACE: Blacks have up to two times higher risk of first-ever stroke than whites.

FAMILY HISTORY: If a father or brother had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 55 (before the age of 65 for a sister or mother), your own risk is greater.

AGE: While anyone can have a stroke, stroke risk increases for men over the age of 45 years and for women over the age of 55 years.

MEDICAL HISTORY: Previous heart attack or stroke, including transient ischemic attack (or TIA, also known as a “mini-stroke”).

These are the stroke risk factors you can — and shoulddo something about:

▪ High blood pressure (140/90 mmHg or higher).

▪ Smoking, or living with a smoker.

▪ Diabetes (also known as “sugar”).

▪ Carotid or other artery disease.

▪ Atrial fibrillation (abnormal heartbeat).

▪ High blood cholesterol (total cholesterol 240 mg/dL or higher, or “good” HDL cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL for men or less than 50 mg/dL for women).

▪ Physical inactivity (on most days of the week you are active less than 30 minutes a day, and get less than 2½ hours of moderate-intensity endurance activity a week).

▪ Obesity (20 or more pounds overweight).

▪ Excessive alcohol use.

▪ Drug abuse.

© 2009 American Heart Association, Inc.