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Teen Health Habits May Determine Later Stroke Risk, "Stroke Belt" Study Reveals

Update Date: Apr 25, 2013 07:37 AM EDT

How you live your life as a teen may play a critical role in determining your stroke risk later in life, according to a new study.

A new study published April 24 in the journal Neurology revealed that individuals who lived in the region known as the "stroke belt" as children or teens had higher stroke risk than people who spent their childhoods or adolescent years elsewhere. The latest findings suggest that health habits during childhood and adolescence may play a key role in lowering an individual's stroke risk later on in life, according to researchers.

The stroke belt is an area in the southeastern United States where residents have higher rates of stroke and stroke death than residents living anywhere else in the country.  Past research has shown that only part of that increased risk can be explained by traditional risk factors such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Past studies found that people who are born in the so-called "stoke belt" but no longer lived there as adults continue to have a higher risk of stroke. Studies also found that people who were born outside of the stroke belt but lived there in adulthood also had higher risk of stroke.

The latest study involved more than 24,544 people with an average age of 65 with no previous history of stroke. Researchers said that about 57 percent of the participants lived in the stroke belt and 43 percent in other parts of the country.  Researchers tracked each person's moves from birth to present, with some people moving into or out of the stroke belt.

Researchers then monitored the participants for an average of 5.8 years.  Researchers said during that time, 615 people had a first stroke.

After accounting for various stroke risk factors, the study revealed that living in the stroke belt during the teenage years was associated with higher risk of stroke.

The study results indicated that people who spent their teen years in the stroke belt were 17 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than those who did not spend their teenage years in the stroke belt.

Researchers also found that across all age groups, African Americans living in the stroke belt had double the risk of stroke compared to Caucasians living in the stroke belt.

"This study suggests that strategies to prevent stroke need to start early in life," study author Virginia J. Howard, of the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a news release.

"Many social and behavioral risk factors, such as smoking, are set in place during the teenage years, and teens are more exposed to external influences and gain the knowledge to challenge or reaffirm their childhood habits and lifestyle," she added.

However, while the study linked living in the stroke belt as a teen to having a higher risk of future stroke, it did not prove a causal relationship between the two factors.

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