About 90 percent of strokes each year in the U.S. occur in people age 50 and older. Yet alarming new research shows that significantly more young adults are experiencing stroke, even as rates among older people may be improving.
The new data, from the Centers for Disease Control, found a significant increase in hospitalizations due to stroke among men and women ages 18 to 54 since 1995, with the rates of stroke almost doubling among men ages 18 to 44.
A similar study published last year, in which researchers analyzed 8 million hospital stays, showed that although rates of ischemic stroke overall dropped by 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, there was a 44 percent increase in people ages 25 to 44. Smaller regional studies mirror these national findings.
Ischemic stroke, the most common type, happens when a blood vessel in the neck or brain is blocked, depriving brain cells of oxygen and necessary nutrients. Unless the blockage is cleared quickly, brain cells die and can compromise the functions controlled in those regions, such as speech or mobility.
Why the precipitous rise in stroke among younger folks? The data suggest the increase is linked to the same risk factors historically implicated in older people: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and tobacco use. Researchers found the likelihood of having at least three of these common risk factors doubled in younger men and women hospitalized for stroke over the time period. Such poor lifestyle habits can wreak havoc on the inner lining of your arteries and allow cholesterol to clump, setting the stage for a dangerous clot.
Although stroke can be devastating at any age, it can be especially heart-breaking for a young adult who may be raising a family or engaged in caregiving for an aging parent. To people in the prime of life, stroke is an unexpected threat and they may overlook worrying signs and delay seeking treatment.
Yet the longer an individual waits, the chances of disability or death rise. There’s a critical window during which the clot-busting drug tPA (tissue plasminogen activator) can be used to stop brain cell damage, typically about 4¼ hours after a stroke starts.
Luckily traditional stroke risk factors are largely avoidable. Regular physical activity and a plant-based diet, emphasizing whole grains, lean protein and plenty of fruits and vegetables, are the foundations of prevention. Health providers should be sure to monitor blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels in younger patients and start treatment, if appropriate. Tests for inflammation, which develops when the blood vessels are under siege, and biomarkers which reveal the health of the endothelial lining of vessels can be helpful for knowing whether damage to blood vessels has already occurred. See information on hsCRP, ADMA, and the MACR (link)
Meanwhile, it’s wise to learn the signs of stroke. The American Stroke Association uses the simple acronym, FAST, to identify worrying symptoms:
Face: Does one side of the face droop?
Arms: Does one arm droop downward?
Speech: Is speech slurred or strange?
Time: If any of these signs occur, call 911. Calling 911 is the fastest way to have emergency personnel diagnose the problem quickly so that treatment can be started to stop a stroke and its harmful consequences.