Think You’re too Young to Have a Stroke? Think Again

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With up-to-date scientific information on your side, you can make wiser choices and live a healthier lifestyle.

Most of us tend to think of a stroke as something that afflicts folks in their later years. And that’s probably what 20-year-old college student Michelle Nimmerrichter thought too before she was brought to Loyola University Medical Center paralyzed on one side and unresponsive (source: Science Daily article).

But recent research suggests that, for a variety of reasons, some of them lifestyle-related, the risk of stroke has significantly increased for persons aged 45 and younger, whereas it has actually been decreasing in the over-65 population (sources: American Stroke Association International Conference 2010, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). And because the risk of stroke can be mitigated to some degree by various health habits and choices, it’s worth taking a good look at some of the factors thought to be responsible for the troubling statistics.

A stroke is what happens when the normal blood flow to vital areas in the brain is interrupted in some fashion. This can happen primarily in one of two ways: when a clot forms in a vessel and blocks the flow of blood (this is known as an ischemic attack), or when a weak vessel bursts and leaks blood before it can reach its proper destination (this is called a hemorrhagic stroke). Sometimes the early signs of a stroke can be difficult to detect but some of the more common indications and symptoms include: sudden or unusual muscular weakness, especially on one side of the body; tingling in the face, arm, or leg; confusion; trouble seeing, walking, speaking or understanding; dizziness or loss of balance or coordination; and severe headache (source: National Institutes of Health).

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When the young woman mentioned above suffered her stroke, doctors suspected that a combination of factors was at work. She carried a gene that made her blood more susceptible to clotting, and she was taking a type of birth control medication that also increases the risk of clots. Fortunately, after a good deal of therapy and treatment with blood thinning medication, she made a fairly remarkable recovery, with minimal residual impairment. She was also fortunate in that the very nature of her stroke made it possible for her to regain much function, despite the fact that a fair amount of time had lapsed between when her “brain attack” occurred and she was discovered and transported to the medical center. Michelle was indeed one of the fortunate ones. Other stoke victims have not been so lucky.

The outcomes of a stroke are hard to predict. According to experts at the University of Maryland, it’s still the second leading cause of death, although mortality rates have generally been steadily declining (source: University of Maryland Medical Center article). And people who suffer the ischemic type of stroke have a better chance for survival than those who suffer the hemorrhagic type. Sometimes, the damage done to areas of the brain is severe enough that the resulting impairments are relatively permanent (e.g., paralysis, loss of speech function, sensory impairments, etc.). Sometimes, especially with good rehabilitative therapy, nearly full normal functioning can be regained. And in those rare cases of mild stroke, recovery can be full.

Folks who have suffered a stroke are at increased risk for having another. The risk of future stroke is highest within the first few weeks of a first stroke. Then the risk decreases substantially, but approximately one in four stroke survivors will still experience another event within a 5-year period. The other major risk factors for stroke include: advanced age, a history of coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease, diabetes, alcoholism, valvular heart disease, atrial fibrillation, genetic predispositions, family history, race (black people are at increased risk not only for stroke, but also for death from stroke) and the use of certain medications and substances. Because the most predominant forms of diabetes, substance addiction, and coronary artery disease are all to some degree preventable illnesses, our health choices can indeed help mitigate the risk for stroke. And the fact that there is an epidemic number of individuals with “metabolic syndrome” (where sedentary lifestyle, and fat-rich and high glycemic diet have led to obesity and cardiovascular ill health) might in part explain why there’s been a trend toward younger persons suffering stroke.

Like heart attack, stroke is one of those health events where time is of the essence. Every minute the brain is deprived of normal blood flow, tens of thousands of cells are damaged or die. The more time that passes between the onset of the stroke and professional intervention, the greater the chance of death, severe impairment, or less than optimal recovery. So if someone you know shows any of the signs mentioned above, it’s important to get them medical attention immediately. And if you know someone whose lifestyle choices are placing them at increased risk for stroke, encourage them to take preventative action by making healthier choices. If they’re young, they might downplay the notion that they are even at risk. But now that you have the facts on your side, you might just be able save a life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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