That feeling of invincibility that comes with being young? You might want to check it at the door and brace yourself: Stroke is no longer just your grandma and grandpa’s concern. An increasing number of not-yet-middle aged people are having strokes, too.
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“I see a lot of younger people ignoring stroke symptoms because they think they are too young or too healthy,” says neurologist Blake Buletko, MD. “Knowing the warning signs and seeking help right away can prevent a stroke from limiting your future productivity.”
Can youngish people have strokes?
Absolutely. In fact, an estimated 10% of strokes occur in people under age 50.
“Illicit drug use and genetic conditions certainly account for some of the strokes we see in younger populations,” says Dr. Buletko. “Beyond that, the causes of stroke in younger adults mirror the causes in adults, with arterial dissection — small tears in an artery (which can also occur with trauma) that cause the artery to close off) — being responsible for a larger proportion of strokes in younger adults.”
Some of the inherited causes of stroke in people under age 50 include:
- Congenital heart disease: Any conditions leading to structural abnormalities of the heart or irregular heart rhythms increase the risk of stroke.
- Blood clotting disorders: Conditions that increase the tendency of platelets or red blood cells to clot while moving through the body can lead to stroke.
- Sickle cell disease: Deformed sickle cells may block arteries and vessels and increase the risk of stroke considerably. (This risk in younger people is 200x higher than someone without sickle cell disease.)
- Metabolic conditions: Conditions like Fabry disease may cause you to develop stroke risk factors such as narrowing of blood vessels supplying blood to the brain, high blood pressure or abnormal cholesterol levels.
Stroke prevention starts by modifying risk factors
“Modifying risk factors is the most important step you can take to prevent strokes as a younger adult,” notes Dr. Buletko. “Take an active role in having a healthy lifestyle so you don’t experience risk factors prematurely. And, if you have a known genetic condition, follow up with your physician regularly.”
The risk factors for strokes in all age groups include:
- High blood pressure.
- High cholesterol.
- Abnormal heart structures, either inherited or acquired.
Stroke symptoms in younger adults: Know the warning signs
Dr. Buletko also recommends being familiar with stroke warning signs: “Never assume you’re exempt from having a stroke,” he says.
Due to laser-sharp memories, younger people have a good chance of remembering the warning-sign acronym BE FAST, which stands for:
- Balance: A sudden loss of balance or coordination.
- Eyes: Sudden vision loss in one or both eyes and having double vision.
- Face: Any drooping on one side of the face.
- Arms: Sudden weakness in one arm or leg.
- Speech: Slurring or difficulty speaking or understanding words.
- Time: Quickly call 911 if you experience any of these symptoms.
Dr. Buletko adds severe onset of a headache as a warning sign specific to younger people, specifically for hemorrhagic strokes or bleeding into the brain. Pain characterized as the worst headache of your life or a thunderclap feeling in your head is a (hopefully obvious) sign that you should see a physician immediately.
“Don’t wait to get help if you experience any of these symptoms,” advises Dr. Buletko. “We can do a lot more early on than if you wait several hours. Your quality of life depends on you seeking help immediately.”