The hidden costs of stroke

The dangers and risks of stroke are well-known. Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer a stroke each year, and the physical damage that such conditions may wreak can often leave individuals with lasting disabilities or maladies. As the National Stroke Association terms it, a stroke is a "brain attack" and happens when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. It can happen at any time and oxygen deprivation kills brain cells quickly. Once those cells are gone, the functions they control — like muscles on one side of the body, the ability to speak or fine-motor skills — are similarly lost forever.

However, while much note and awareness is given to the negative physical effects of stroke, there is a growing amount of research that indicates other aspects of a person's well-being may be affected. Particularly, stroke can put mental health at risk, as a recent study found. This added wrinkle in what is known about stroke side effects may make awareness efforts all the more important, as prevention and recognition are key to saving lives.

Fifth-leading cause of death

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., killing around 140,000 Americans annually, or 1 in 20 deaths. Overall, someone in the country experiences a stroke every 40 seconds, as each year more than 795,000 Americans has a stroke; of whom, 610,000 are first or new strokes.

The human and economic costs of stroke are clear. Strokes kill one American every four minutes and are estimated to lead to some $34 billion in losses each year. The potential for older adults to suffer severe and lasting adverse effects further underscore the risks of stroke, which the CDC said was the leading cause of serious long-term disability. Stroke also reduces mobility in more than half of stroke survivors who are 65 and older.

Mental health possibly affected as well

"58 percent of stroke victims had meaningfully worse scores when it came to social roles and activities."

As noted, many of the side effects stroke victims experience are related to physical movement and control. In many cases, a stroke can leave portions of a person's body partially or totally paralyzed. This isn't a fact that a recent paper published in the journal Neurology intends to dispute, however, what a team of researchers from the American Academy of Neurology did find was that the scope of stroke side effects can extend beyond physical complications.

In a study involving 1,195 people who'd suffered an ischemic stroke (the most common kind, when blood flow to the brain is blocked), participants were asked questions about their physical functioning, anxiety, thinking skills and planning, and how pain affects aspects of their lives. They filled out questionnaires for 100 days after a stroke, and unsurprisingly, researchers found victims were more affected by physical problems than the general population, as 63 percent of stroke patients had scores considered meaningfully worse. Interestingly, 58 percent of people with stroke had meaningfully worse scores than the general population when it came to social roles and activities.

"After a stroke, people who have only mild disability can often have 'hidden' problems that can really affect their quality of life," said study author Irene L. Katzan, MD, MS, of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. "And for people with more disability, what bothers them the most? Problems with sleep? Depression? Fatigue? Not many studies have asked people how they feel about these problems, and we doctors have often focused just on physical disability or whether they have another stroke."

Katzan went on to say that treatment for strokes should be cognizant of these other side effects and potentially incorporate things like social participation and encouragement.