Stroke risk higher in U.S. than Europe: study

CHICAGO Fri Feb 22, 2008 3:42pm EST

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Barriers to health care, bad habits and poor diet put U.S. adults at far greater risk of stroke than Europeans, researchers in the Netherlands said on Friday.

U.S. women are twice as likely to have a stroke as European women, and American men have a 61 percent higher chance compared with European men.

"What we find is, especially in the very poor, Americans have a much higher prevalence of stroke than Europeans," said Mauricio Avendano of the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, who presented his findings at the American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference in New Orleans.

He said Americans have more preventable risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

"Obesity is definitely contributing to these differences, especially when you look at central European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands or Austria. Their prevalence of obesity is much less," he said.

The findings are based on data from large surveys of U.S. and European health and retirement data, which included interviews among people 50 and older. The researchers studied data on more than 13,000 people in the United States and more than 30,000 Europeans.

"There are great differences in diet," Avendano said, noting that poor Americans have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables than do more affluent Americans or Europeans.

He contrasted this to Spain, which has the lowest stroke prevalence among all the countries studied. "In Spain, no matter whether you are rich or poor, you have access to vegetables," he said.

And, while Europeans now smoke more than Americans, there are a great number of former smokers in the United States who may still be paying a price for their habit.

"What we could be seeing now is a delay of the effects of smoking," Avendano said in a telephone interview.

Beyond bad habits, Avendano said societal differences between the United States and Europe play a role.

"European countries have a much greater prevention orientation. Everyone in Europe has access to health care," he said.

In the United States, he said doctors are quicker to medicalise a problem, treating it with drugs rather than stressing education and lifestyle changes.

"Risk factors alone do not account for the differences we found, which points to the role of broader health-care and structural policies," he said in a statement.

Strokes kill nearly 6 million people a year, according to the World Health Organization, and most of these deaths are in developed countries.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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