May is both National Stroke Awareness Month and Lupus Awareness Month.

These designations call attention to two different conditions. Stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either by a clot or because a blood vessel has burst. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can damage skin, joints, and organs. Lupus increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and stroke.

Both stroke and lupus affect some populations more than others and, therefore, contribute to health disparities.

Stroke-related disparities

  • One out of every 20 deaths in the U.S. is due to stroke, making it the fifth leading cause of death. The risk varies according to race and ethnicity.
  • The risk of having a first stroke is nearly twice as high for blacks as for whites. Black Americans also have the highest rate of death due to stroke. They are more likely to have a stroke at earlier ages and to become disabled as a result of stroke.
  • Hispanic Americans are more likely to have a stroke at a younger age (average of 67) than non-Hispanic whites (average age of 80).
  • Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are four times more likely to die from stroke than whites.
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.4 times more likely to have a stroke than whites.
  • Although Asian Americans tend to have healthier lifestyles, they are 20 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than whites.

Lupus-related disparities

  • Nine out of 10 cases of lupus occur in women age 15 to 44.
  • African American women are three times more likely to have lupus than white women.
  • Hispanic American, Asian American, Native American, and Alaskan Native women also are more likely to have lupus than white women.
  • African American and Hispanic American women tend to develop lupus at a younger age and have more serious symptoms than women of other groups.

What are the risks—and can you reduce them?

For stroke, the risks can be genetic or related to lifestyle decisions, socioeconomic status, education, access to quality healthcare—or a combination of these factors. Some risks can be managed, while others are beyond your control. For example, you can’t change the fact that your family history, increased age, female sex, or African American race increases your risk of stroke. But you can manage other risk factors: high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, and obesity.

Risk factors for lupus are linked to age, sex, family history, race, and ethnicity. Although there is no way to prevent the disease, early diagnosis and treatment can improve both quality and length of life. If you have lupus, symptoms or flare-ups can be triggered by ultraviolet rays from the sun or fluorescent lights, certain antibiotics, infection, exhaustion, injury or surgery, and stress.

Researchers involved in the LUMINA (Lupus in Minorities) study have identified two genes that might be tied to increased risk of lupus in women of color. Such findings could lead to future genetic-based treatments. That’s why it’s so important to increase diversity in clinical trials and support efforts such as Clinical Research Pathways’ Training Minority Clinical Teams: Getting New Quality Medicines to All Americans program. We need to know whether some populations are more susceptible to certain diseases—and why. Only then can we develop new medicines that work for everyone.

What can you do?

Start by knowing your risk for stroke and lupus. Work with your doctor to manage risks that you can help control. If you’re being treated for stroke or lupus, ask about opportunities to participate in research and clinical trials.