Stroke Weather

Charles Dudley Warner famously observed, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”  Although that 1897 insight is usually attributed to Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), it was the Harford Courant editor Warner who first published the comment. His statement has held true for more than 120 years and seems likely to apply for another 120 years.  Since he stated the obvious, much has transpired that could have invalidated his observation.  Weather scientists have identified measures that could change global weather patterns, but people with the power to adopt those measures have failed to do anything consequential.

Despite on-going public relations campaigns to convince the general public that global warming is a hoax, the planet itself appears indifferent to these reassuring press releases and continues its melting of the polar ice caps. As carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases accumulate, physics insists that the planet heat up.  We have known for many years that these gases have been accumulating and why they are accumulating, but governments have failed to act to reverse or even limit the accumulation of these gases. Perhaps this failure to act comes from a desire to see a much warmer planet, but one of the many ironies of this warming is that Connecticut will get colder in the winter and more susceptible to violent storms in the summer and fall as the planet warms.

I recognize how counterintuitive a colder Connecticut is with global warming, but you can bet your space heaters on the inevitability of this outcome. It is mostly about the Gulf Stream.  The Gulf Stream is a current of relatively warm water the extends up from the Gulf of Mexico, along the coast of the southeastern United States, around the tip of Florida, and up the east coast of the United States.  This relatively warm water keeps Connecticut from enjoying the much colder weather experienced by residents of North Dakota. Hartford, Conn. is at 42 degrees north of the equator and Fargo, N.D. is only slightly farther north at 46 degrees north of the equator. Both cities are halfway to the north pole, but Hartford benefits from the warmth of the Gulf Stream.

Unfortunately, the integrity of the Gulf Stream depends upon the salt content of the oceans.  I shall not burden you with why ocean salinity enables the formation and preservation of massive “rivers” in the oceans, such as the Gulf Stream.  Suffice it to say that as the polar ice caps and glaciers melt, the amount of salt in a gallon of sea water decreases. When ice forms, it does not contain any salt. Salt water separates into ice and salt as it freezes. Eat a snowball: it never tastes salty unless your dog urinated on it before your taste test. As the ice melts, it releases salt-free water into the ocean.  Melting the polar ice caps effectively dilutes the salt content of the oceans. As the ocean gets “less salty,” the Gulf Stream disappears.  Without a Gulf Stream running along our seashore, we might as well move to Fargo, N.D. The weather will be the same here and there. As the planet warms, Connecticut freezes.

With the cold come medical catastrophes, including heart attacks, fractured hips and strokes. The basis for heart attacks and hip fractures are obvious. Shoveling snow, pushing vehicles stuck on ice, and other such exertions stress the heart and encourage it to fail. Icy walkways combine with gravity to pull the more unstable of us to the ground and test the resiliency of our hips. Most hearts over 60 years old fail the exertion test and virtually every hip over 65 years old will fail the slip and fall test. It is obvious why people have more heart attacks and fractured hips in the winter, but, you ask, “Why more strokes?”

A stroke is permanent brain damage. The brain needs blood flow to survive. Most strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. Over the decades that I treated stroke patients, I noticed that the frequency of strokes increased sharply with an abrupt freeze. Obviously strokes occur in parts of the country that hardly ever have very cold weather, but in New England there is an obvious spike in strokes when the temperatures dips into the 20s (degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. Blood from your heart needs to travel through your neck to get to the brain. I suspect that blood traveling through your neck may cool slightly when exposed to especially cold air, and this may be a factor in the increased risk of stroke. 

Obviously the blood does not freeze, but something encourages clot formation or the release of clots that have formed on areas damaged by hardening of the arteries. Blood clots flow upstream to the brain and block blood vessels that are smaller than the clots. The body has a system to help break up these clots, but if that system fails, the part of the brain dependent on the blocked blood vessel dies. Without blood flow, you suffer a stroke. About one-third of strokes caused by blocked blood vessels are fatal. If you survive, you may be left with paralysis, seizures, visual loss, language problems, or numerous other neurologic problems.

Your risk of stroke increases with chronically high blood pressure or blood cholesterol levels, diabetes mellitus, inherited clotting disorders, cigarette smoking, obesity and a variety of other factors, some of which you can control and some of which are beyond your control. Which category global warming falls into depends on international action or inaction.  If we continue to use carbon-based fuels and burn the tropical rain forests, the planet will continue to warm, and Easton, Conn. will continue to cool. As our winters grow colder, we shall have more health problems, including strokes. As I write this, the temperature outside is 21 degrees, and it is expected to dip to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. This is stroke weather. Bundle up.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.