A new study has found that strokes may be becoming more common among younger people. Experts speculate the increase may be due to a rise in risk factors such as diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol.
Lead researcher Dr. Brett Kissela, professor and vice-chair of neurology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, said he was motivated to study stroke rates in young people after observing a disturbing trend at his own hospital.
“In clinical observation, looking at the patients we were caring for in the hospital, we were seeing this trend of stroke patients being younger,” Kissela said.
Kissela’s observations were confirmed in a larger population study of people living in Ohio and Kentucky. He and his colleagues looked at stroke rates in people between ages of 20 and 54 between the years of 1993 and 1994, and between 1999 and 2005.
In 1993, the average age of people who experienced their first stroke was 71 years old. This fell to 69 years old in 2005.
Furthermore, stroke rates among people under 55 grew from 13 percent in 1993-1994, to 19 percent in 2005.
The rise of strokes in young people was observed both in Caucasians and African-Americans. Among Caucasians, the number of people under 55 who had experienced strokes nearly doubled from 26 out of 100,000 people in 1993-1994, to 48 out of 100,000 people in 2005. Among African-Americans, the number grew from 83 out of 100,000 people to 128 out of 100,000 people.
“Stroke is still a disease that is much more common in older people, but I hope this is a wake-up call that this is a problem that is getting worse in younger people and prompt them to go to the doctor to identify risk factors for stroke and modify them,” Kissela said.
According to Kissela, potential explanations for the risk of strokes in young people include the earlier onset of certain risk factors such as diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol. He added another contributing factor could be improved diagnosis thanks to increased use of MRI imaging.
“The better imaging we have now plays a role, but I think it’s a minor component,” Kissela said. “My feeling is a lot of it has to do with people having these risk factors like obesity and diabetes in younger ages. Stroke we think of as a consequence of many years of having those risk factors, so to advance the time they start, it makes sense to me that the stroke would happen at a younger age as well.”
Even though younger people tend to recover better from strokes, because their brains are more modifiable, Kissela warned the results could still be devastating.
“When you have a stroke – that something that’s irreversible,” he said. “You can recover, but in some cases the brain damage is permanent. A 40 year old like myself may be paralyzed for the rest of his or her life, forced to live in a care environment like a nursing home, removed from the work force and not able to participate in family and personal activities.”
Kissela said, given the new data, it was important for both doctors and patients to keep an eye out for risk factors – even at younger ages.
“The good news is that some of the possible contributing factors to these strokes can be modified with lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise,” Kissela said in a released statement. “However, given the increase in stroke among those younger than 55, younger adults should see a doctor regularly to monitor their overall health and risk for stroke and heart disease.”
The study was published Wednesday in the journal Neurology. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.