DALLAS, Texas — There’s little doubt the pandemic is making a lot of people a little obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness. However, OCD is a real mental health disorder that’s about more than just washing hands. For adults dealing with a clinical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a new study finds troubling news about their brain health later in life. Researchers say OCD patients are over three times more likely to suffer an ischemic stroke than those without the condition.
An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot interrupts the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. This is the more common version of a stroke, in comparison to hemorrhagic strokes which involve a burst blood vessel causing bleeding in the brain. Overall, strokes are the second-leading cause of death worldwide, trailing only heart disease.
“The results of our study should encourage people with OCD to maintain a healthy lifestyle, such as quitting or not smoking, getting regular physical activity and managing a healthy weight to avoid stroke-related risk factors,” says study senior author Ya-Mei Bai, M.D., Ph.D., from Taiwan’s Taipei Veterans General Hospital and National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University College of Medicine, in a media release.
What exactly is obsessive-compulsive disorder?
OCD is a common mental health condition which causes intrusive, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations. These quickly turn into obsessions for patients, making them feel as if they must perform those acts repetitively — a compulsion. This behavior can sometimes become debilitating as OCD patients are consumed by the need to constantly carry out certain tasks.
Examples of OCD behaviors include hand washing, constantly checking on things, or continuously cleaning. The condition can significantly interfere with a person’s daily life and make social interactions difficult.
Researchers say previous studies have revealed that OCD often develops after someone suffers a stroke or brain injury. However, the team in Taiwan set out to see if the reverse is also true — does OCD lead to strokes?
Older adults with OCD have the highest risk
Study authors examined the health records of over 50,000 people from 2001-2010 in the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database. They compared the stroke risk of 28,064 adults with OCD and 28,064 adults without the condition for up to 11 years. The team notes these participants had an average age of 37 at the start of the study and the group contained a nearly equal number of men and women.
Results show people with OCD have a significantly higher risk of stroke from a blood clot. That risk is greatest in patients over the age of 60. Researchers discovered OCD’s link to strokes is also independent of other major risk factors, including obesity, heart disease, smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
The study did not find any link between having OCD and a higher risk for hemorrhagic strokes. Additionally, medications which treat OCD also did not raise a person’s risk of having a stroke.
“For decades, studies have found a relationship between stroke first and OCD later,” Bai says. “Our findings remind clinicians to closely monitor blood pressure and lipid profiles, which are known to be related to stroke in patients with OCD.”
Study authors note their findings do have some limitations. For one, the data only includes stroke information from people seeking treatment for such an event, so more people may have had strokes than the results show. The health records also do not include information on each participant’s family medical history.
When it comes to treating a stroke, immediate action is key to survival. Health professionals use the abbreviation “F.A.S.T.” to remind people how to spot the signs of a stroke. F.A.S.T. stands for face drooping (F), arm weakness (A), speech difficulty (S), time to call 9-1-1 (T).
The study appears in Stroke, a journal of the American Stroke Association.