Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke, and an increasing number of these stroke victims are millennials. In fact, national data shows that while there is a decrease in stroke rates overall, the incidence of stroke in younger to middle-aged adults (ages 14 to 44) increased each year from 1995 to 2008.
It is a common misconception that stroke is a disease that only affects people over the age of 55,” said Marc Lazzaro, MD, a neurologist at Froedtert Hospital. “The truth is that people of any age can have a stroke.”
Lifestyle Factors That Can Lead to a Stroke
It is important to know the signs of a stroke. Remember them with the acronym BE FAST (Balance, Eyes, Face, Arm, Speech, Terrible Headache — Call 911). Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the leading cause of disability. There are several types of stroke, but all are caused by decreased blood supply to the brain. Common risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which are linked to obesity.
“A sedentary lifestyle and a poor diet are somewhat to blame for the increase of stroke in the young because providers are seeing some of those risk factors in patients at increasingly younger ages,” Dr. Lazzaro said. “Preventive care and education is how we can make the most impact.”
One group of researchers explored trends in stroke hospitalizations and associated risk factors among children and young adults. They found a correlation between those hospitalized for ischemic stroke (a stroke caused by a clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain) and tobacco use and diagnoses of hypertension and diabetes. Nearly one-third of the people ages 15 to 34, and more than half of those ages 35 to 44 had hypertension. More than a quarter of people ages 35 to 44 years had diabetes.
Neck Injuries and Heart Problems are Common Causes
Even young, healthy individuals are at risk for a stroke. The most common cause of stroke in the young is an injury to the artery in the neck called an arterial dissection. An arterial dissection is caused by some form of trauma, like a car crash or ski accident.
“Younger people are more susceptible to arterial dissections because they are more active and more likely to participate in high-impact activities, such as contact sports,” Dr. Lazzaro said.
In the youngest of stroke patients, congenital heart abnormalities or heart valve problems that lead to clot formation can cause a stroke.
Stroke in Younger Adults: A Public Health Concern
Stroke in the young is more recognized today than a decade ago, in part because of the increase in the use of diagnostic imaging. A symptom that may not have led to an MRI in the past is more likely to lead to one now, and small strokes that were going unnoticed can be found.
While the majority of stroke patients are still over the age of 55, the outlook for this population is improving because statistics show stroke rates are decreasing. The consequences of a stroke for younger patients, however, are more damaging.
“There is a real public health concern,” Dr. Lazzaro said. “Stroke at a young age has a serious impact on disability and productivity throughout one’s lifetime.”