According to Dr. Rajiv Padmanabhan, neurologist, Baystate Neurology, Assistant Professor, UMass Chan Medical School-Baystate, “Over the past 10 years, there’s been a 44% increase in young adults being admitted to the hospital for strokes. Today, 1 in7 strokes occur in adolescent and young adults between the ages of 15-49.” In other words, you’re never too young for a stroke.
Causes of Strokes in Young People
Dr. Padmanabhan notes that while many of the risk factors for a stroke in younger and older adults are the same—smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, drug and alcohol abuse, and obesity—there are other conditions can increase your risk before the age of 45.
“Strokes in younger people are sometimes caused by conditions, some inherited, but many are not,” he says. “For example, 1 in 4 of all people have small holes in the walls of their heart. Called Patent Foramen Ovale, or PFOs, these holes can occasionally allow a clot to pass from the heart to the brain and lead to a stroke. For many young stroke victims, they only learn of their PFO after they’ve had a stroke.”
Clotting disorders (less often) are another disorder that can lead to a stroke in people of any age. “Some disorders run in a family while others simply develop,” he says. “Either way, if the condition causes your blood to clot more easily, the risk of stroke increases even at a young age.”
Another cause of strokes in young adults is dissection, or tearing, of the blood vessels in the neck. “While migraines and other conditions can cause tears, they’re most often related to trauma to the neck, often by young people engaged in sports or other physical activities,” says Dr. Padmanabhan. “In these instances, it is important to get help immediately. There’s no ‘walking off’ a stroke.”
Preventing Strokes in Young People
While some risk factors are simply out of your control, there are still plenty of things you can do to minimize others.
Even simple lifestyle changes can have big benefits, including:
- Exercise: 30-60 minutes of moderate daily activity (think a brisk walk, riding a stationary bike or water aerobics) can help with high blood pressure, excess weight, and stress
- Eat heart healthy: reducing the amount of salt and saturated fats in your diet can help control high blood pressure (the leading cause of stroke) and lower cholesterol.
- Quit smoking: smokers are twice as likely to die from a stroke than non-smokers. That’s because smoking can cause the arteries to narrow which, in turn, increases the likelihood of blood clots that can lead to a stroke.
BE FAST: Recognizing the signs of a stroke
Research indicates that 10% of all ischemic strokes (the most common type of stroke) now occur in adults younger than age 50. But because many younger adults may not readily recognize the symptoms in themselves or other younger adults, they often delay getting care. The consequences of any delay can be devastating.
“Every minute, approximately 2 million brain cells die in an untreated stroke,” says Dr. Padmanabhan. “The more time that passes, the more likely the chance of brain injury, permanent disability, even death.
If you or someone else exhibits signs of a stroke, call an ambulance immediately. An ambulance will ensure they are taken to the closest medical facility that can handle a potential stroke. The BEFAST guide below may help you recognize if someone is having a stroke and direct you toward action:
- Balance: a sudden loss of balance or coordination
- Eyes: sudden changes in vision including loss of vision in one or both eyes, or double vision
- Face: sudden weakness or drooping on one side of the face
- Arms: sudden weakness in one arm or leg
- Speech: sudden slurred speech or difficulty speaking or understanding words
- Time: Call 911 quickly if someone is experiencing any of these symptoms.
In addition, a severe, sudden headache that is unlike any other headache you’ve ever experienced could also be a sign of a stroke.
If you or someone else is shows any of these signs of a stroke—no matter what age—call 911 immediately and go to the hospital in an ambulance.
Advanced Care When You Need it Most
Each year, the Acute Stroke Team at Baystate Medical Center cares for more than 1,600 patients who have experienced a stroke. That’s more than any other hospital in western Massachusetts.
Learn more comprehensive stroke treatment and rehabilitation options at Baystate Health.