Bethel Park native co-authors CDC report on stroke death rates
The title of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Vital Signs monthly report for September, a paper co-authored by Bethel Park native Linda Schieb, is anything but encouraging: “Progress has stalled in U.S. stroke death rates after decades of decline.”
As an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, Schieb studies the incidence, distribution and possible control of related diseases.
“We were actually a little surprised. We get the death data annually, and so we had seen that it was flattening out a little bit,” she said about the trend, which has turned into an upswing: “In 2015, about 140,000 adults 35 and older died from stroke, and in 2013, that was 128,000.”
She said that data are showing higher numbers of stroke deaths especially among Hispanic Americans and in several states in the South.
“There’s a slowdown getting into a possible increase in Pennsylvania,” she said. “The Northeast wasn’t as bad as the South, but still not looking great.”
Schieb took a closer look at where she used to live.
“For 2013 to 2015, the death rate for Allegheny County was actually a little better than the state average. It was 70.4 per 100,000 vs. the state average of 73.4,” she reported. “One of the positive things, too, is that St. Clair and Jefferson hospitals are both certified as primary stroke centers, so they’re hospitals that meet standards for better stroke care.”
Report’s key findings
• Blacks continue to have the highest stroke death rates among all races or ethnicities.
• Stroke death rates increased among Hispanics by 6 percent each year from 2013-15. The decline in stroke death rates slowed in 38 states, about three out of four states and the District of Columbia, from 2000 through 2015. That includes Pennsylvania.
• The findings emphasize the importance of increasing efforts to reduce stroke deaths by identifying risk factors, geographic trends and other factors that may be driving the stall.
That may be encouraging locally, but Schieb mentioned some reasons for concern on a national level.
“What we think may be happening is that risk factors for stroke – which include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes –have all been increasing, and they’re happening at younger ages,” she said. “So we’re concerned now that stroke death might continue to increase as the younger population ages.”
Schieb’s father was relatively young, 49, when he was diagnosed with heart disease, and he had a fatal heart attack at 70. Her mother died of pulmonary hypertension, high blood pressure in the lungs.
“I was interested in doing something related to medicine because of my parents,” Schieb said.
She attended St. Germaine School and her freshman year at Bethel Park High School before her family moved to Tennessee. A few years later, she enrolled at Georgia Tech in Atlanta to study electrical engineering, earning her degree and working in that field for 11 years.
“I liked parts of what I was doing but realized I didn’t just love it, and I didn’t feel like I was making a difference,” she explained.
And so she earned her master’s in public health from research-oriented Emory University, also in Atlanta, and subsequently went to work for the Atlanta-based CDC.
Schieb was lead author of the Vital Signs report “Preventable Deaths from Heart Disease and Stroke,” published in 2013, and she also is the lead for CDC’s Interactive Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke. The online mapping tool allows users to create and customize county-level maps of heart disease and stroke by race and ethnicity, gender, age group and more.
As for those who display symptoms of stroke, she follows the lead of numerous public service announcements and recommends calling 911 immediately.
“A lot of people don’t know that there are treatments,” she said. “If you can get people to the hospital fast enough, then they can be treated and, hopefully, have fewer effects afterward.”