If you’re a young or middle-aged adult, you may think strokes only happen to senior citizens. But experts say you’re never too young for a stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked or bursts.
“Although stroke incidence is lower for younger people, strokes can happen at any age,” says stroke specialist Gabor Toth, M.D.
“People are beginning to recognize the symptoms of a stroke when they may not have before,” he says. And it’s a good idea to educate yourself on the risks, signs and symptoms of stroke.
What does current research say?
There is research, though conflicting, that suggests that strokes may now be diagnosed more frequently in people between the ages of 20 and 54.
Ischemic strokes occur when a clot blocks blood flow to the brain. A 2011 study found that ischemic stroke hospitalization rates in teens and young adults aged 15 to 44 increased up to 37 percent between 1995 and 2008.
In 2012, researchers found that stroke incidence for people under the age of 55 had increased from 12.9 percent to 18.6 percent between 1993 and 2005.
However, Toth says there are limitations in these studies and that other research does not support the notion that stroke rates are rising in the young — but he still thinks it’s important to note the findings.
“It certainly raises awareness of an significant problem. Hopefully, the public and even those in the medical field are becoming better educated on the subject, potentially leading to earlier and more timely diagnosis and treatment of this devastating disease,” he says.
Who is at risk?
Stroke risk factors for younger people are largely the same as they are for older adults. There is research suggesting that the incidence of these risk factors may also be increasing in the young.
–high blood pressure
However, younger people may have some additional risk factors:
–Congenital heart disease and blood clotting disorders. If not recognized and treated appropriately, these conditions may result in strokes in childhood, early adulthood, or even later in life.
–Birth control. Women who are on birth control pills and who also smoke are also at an increased risk.
–Tear in a blood vessel wall. Also called dissection, a tear in the blood vessel wall is also a risk factor that can be found in younger adults. “Dissection can be spontaneous, but is often times caused by some sort of trauma, including car accidents or being jerked around by roller coaster rides,” says Toth. Even aggressive chiropractic neck manipulations have been suggested to sometimes cause dissection.
–Drug use. “Younger people may be more likely to use drugs, which can increase their risk for stroke,” Toth says.
What if you think you’re having a stroke?
Seek help quickly because strokes are time-sensitive. The more time that passes, the greater the chance of increased brain damage and inability to reverse symptoms.
“If you get to the hospital quickly, you may qualify for early medical or interventional therapies that have the highest chance of reversing your symptoms, and result in a better outcome in the long term,” Toth says.
What if you think someone else is having a stroke?
If you think a friend, a family member or a co-worker is having a stroke, call 911 immediately.
Then, keep them safe while you’re waiting for the ambulance. If they feel weak, have them sit or lie down so they won’t fall, he says.
“If the person is stubbornly refusing to go to the hospital, do your best to convince them to go,” Toth says. “Even if you’re not sure the person is having a stroke, it’s best for them to get a quick checkup to make sure everything’s OK. Ask what’s the worst that can happen compared to what can happen if they don’t go.”
Don’t give aspirin or water
You don’t necessarily want to give a potential stroke victim an aspirin before a quick CT scan can be obtained, because it may increase the risk of bleeding in the brain if the actual stroke is hemorrhagic.
Likewise, you shouldn’t offer someone who is having a stroke a glass of water because there’s a danger of choking.
How to decrease your chance of stroke
Young people may not always control their diabetes or their weight, and they may not understand the importance of quitting smoking. But people in their 20s and 30s do have strokes, so it’s vital to control those risk factors regardless of how young you are.
“In most cases, it’s easier to prevent stroke than it is to treat it,” says Toth. “Focus on controlling the basic stroke risk factors and your risk for stroke should decrease as well.”
(A Wellness Update is a magazine devoted to up-to-the minute information on health issues from physicians, major hospitals and clinics, universities and health care agencies across the U.S. Online at www.awellnessupdate.com.)
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.