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Friends Are Allies Against Another Stroke

Study finds wider social network cuts rate of second attack

FRIDAY, Feb. 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- You really can get by with a little help from your friends.

That's according to a new study, which says that people who've suffered one stroke are less likely to have another bout of cardiovascular trouble if they have more than three friends.

New York researchers who did the work caution that they draw no cause-and-effect connections from their findings. Still, they say, social isolation does seem to be an independent predictor of first strokes, and the new results point to a similar effect for poor outcomes after a vessel attack.

Bernadette Boden-Albala, a Columbia University researcher, led the study, which she presented Friday at a meeting in San Antonio of the American Stroke Association. Boden-Albala, a doctoral student, is now organizing a follow-up study to see whether stroke patients placed in strong support networks after their vessel problems do better than those who are more isolated. That research could shed more light on how and why social support is protective, she says.

The latest study included more than 650 elderly New Yorkers, whose average age was 69, all of whom had suffered a stroke. Slightly more than half of the subjects were women, 54 percent were Hispanic, and 27 percent were black.

About 270 of the subjects, or roughly 40 percent, had a second stroke, suffered a heart attack, or died during the five-year study period, Boden-Albala says.

Many of the patients had high blood pressure, diabetes, abnormal heart rhythms, and other factors -- especially old age -- that raised their odds of additional cardiovascular trouble. But even after accounting for these risks, subjects who reported having more than three friends were 40 percent less likely than those with smaller support networks to have one of the three bad outcomes, the researchers say.

People with disabilities who needed help around the house had an 80 percent higher chance of having a first stroke as those better able to care for themselves, the researchers say.

Dr. Larry Goldstein, director of the stroke center at Duke University Medical Center, says the latest work is consistent with earlier reports of social support and recovery from the vessel attacks.

"Social factors are an important predictor of stroke-related outcome," says Goldstein, a spokesman for the American Stroke Association. Goldstein cites previous research showing that male stroke victims do better when they live with a caretaker, presumably a wife.

However, Goldstein says it's not clear if social support directly improves recovery through emotional and psychological forces, or if it's merely a marker for other factors. It's possible, for example, that patients who report having more than three friends are able to keep their social networks intact because their first stroke wasn't especially severe. On the other hand, those whose friendships are sparse may have become withdrawn after a more debilitating event.

Boden-Albala says the study did grade patients on stroke severity using a National Institutes of Health scale, and found that isolated subjects had somewhat worse scores, "but probably not enough to make this finding all about stroke severity."

What To Do

Join a club, invite people over, get connected, and you'll feel better. Your friends won't walk out on you if you sing out of tune.

For more on stroke, try the American Stroke Association or the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

SOURCES: Interviews with Bernadette M. Boden-Albala, M.P.H., Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York; Larry Goldstein, M.D., director, stroke center, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C.; Feb. 8, 2002, American Stroke Association abstract
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