Why do residents of the Southern U.S. suffer from a higher rate of strokes than people in other parts of America?

There’s a swath of Southern “hot” American states (the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi) that comprise what health experts refer to as the “stroke belt,” a band of states in which residents suffer from a much higher rate of strokes than other North Americans.

So why do the residents in those states suffer from way more strokes than the residents of say, Hawaii or New Mexico, which are also hotter-weather states?

As always, no one knows for certain, although a couple of factors are pretty obvious.

Warm Climate Equals Less Exercise

First, as is instantly clear to any visitor to the “stroke belt,” the number of runners or walkers is generally way lower than the number you tend to see in other American states. This is for a pretty obvious reason: It’s very hard to get the will to do anything active outdoors when the temperature is often in the 30s or higher, and especially when it’s so humid that simply standing around makes you sweat.

Fatty Diet

More important, though, I think, is the diet in the stroke belt. The local meals lean heavily toward fatty choices, and too often, their preferred mode of preparing food is to fry it.

So yes, when we visited New Orleans, I was delighted to see that they eat a lot of stroke-preventing fish, but nearly every dish that waiters suggested to me was either fried or covered in a heavy, creamy, buttery sauce (tastiest food I had in years, though).

Earlier Habits are Hard to Recover From

But here’s the really scary thing about those lifestyle habits. According to a recent study published in the journal Neurology, because stroke-belt citizens start living that unhealthy pattern early in life, that seems to exert a permanent negative effect on their health. Even when they move away to other states in their adult years and take up healthier lifestyle practices, people raised in the stroke belt still retain a permanently higher risk of suffering a stroke.

In other words, some of the poor lifestyle practices we follow early in life, especially during our teen years, may have a permanent negative effect on our health. Although it’s also very important to point out that in this study, people who moved out of the stroke belt and started doing more exercise and eating better did manage to lower their risk of stroke compared to people who didn’t alter their behaviour — the former just couldn’t entirely erase the consequences of those early-life negative habits.

Bottom line: It’s never too late to start living healthier, but the sooner you start, the better.

Dr. Art Hister is a medical writer and health analyst for Global TV.

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.