Sickle Cell Disease Connected to Strokes in Children

Study finds that anemia and high blood pressure may be to blame.

Posted: 12/06/2011 05:00 PM EST

Children who suffer from sickle cell disease — a painful, inherited blood disorder — and also have anemia and/or high blood pressure may be at an increased risk for experiencing "silent" strokes, suggest researchers from John Hopkins Children's Hospital.

According to HealthDay, by analyzing the MRI brain scans of 814 children with sickle cell disease, aged 5 to 15, researchers found that 31 percent of them had suffered silent strokes. None of the patients had any signs of strokes or a history of seizures or strokes. So after taking a deeper look, they concluded that “anemia and high blood pressure individually increased the risk of silent stroke in the study participants, but the combination of the two carried the highest risk."

Silent strokes are different than mini strokes — strokes with symptoms that can occur for minutes to hours. Silent strokes can only be detected with an MRI brain scan, and most people who suffer from them have no idea they even had a stroke. Also, these forms of strokes are more likely to happen to people older than 60.

Why is this relevant to African-Americans? Because sickle cell disease mostly impacts people of African descent and Hispanics of Caribbean ancestry. In the U.S., roughly 2 million African-Americans carry the trait for sickle cell — that's 1 in 12. And 1 in every 500 Black babies is born with sickle cell disease.

According to the Human Genome Project Information website, normal hemoglobin (red blood) cells are smooth and round, allowing for ease in moving through blood vessels. Sickle cell hemoglobin molecules are the opposite — they are stiff and form into the shape of a sickle. Therefore, they tend to cluster together, and cannot easily move through blood vessels. The cluster causes a blockage and stops the movement of oxygen-carrying blood. Sickle cells die after about 10 to 20 days, unlike normal hemoglobin cells, which live for up to 120 days. This results in a chronic short supply of red blood cells, which causes anemia.

Since sickle cell symptoms don’t appear until after a child is four months old, parents may not know whether their child is crying because of pain from the disease or is just doing what babies normally do. Here are some signs to watch for in infants:

— Severe abdominal or bone pain
— Shortness of breath
— Delay in growth or puberty
— Fatigue
— Fever
— Loss of color
— Racing heart rate
— The appearance of ulcers on the lower leg
— Yellow eyes and skin

Recently, The Root reported that despite the normal sickle cell treatment, researchers at John Hopkins Children's Hospital are using a new type of stem cell transplants on children suffering with sickle cell in hopes to cure them from the disease. But these procedures are expensive, costing between $200,000 to $300,000, and are not widely available.

To learn more about sickle cell, visit the American Sickle Cell Association website.


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(Photo: Spike Walker / Getty Images)

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