Different Strokes for Different Folks: Too Young to Have a Stroke? Think Again!

Each year, about 795,000 Americans have a stroke.

Stroke is the leading cause of death and the leading cause of long-term disability in the United States.  Most people think of a stroke as something that happens to old people. While stroke risk does indeed go up as people get older, stroke risk has increased in the younger population. The rate is increasing among those in their 50s, 40s, and even younger.  Many doctors say better diagnostics and increasing rates of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are to blame for an increase in heart disease and stroke among people as young as those in their 20s and 30s.

Who is at increased risk for a younger-than-usual stroke? African-Americans and Hispanics, more than Whites. Not only do Blacks have almost twice the risk of first-ever stroke compared to Whites, but Blacks 35-54 years old have four times the relative risk for stroke and the strokes are more severe and disabling compared to Whites.  The rate of strokes among adults younger than 55 nearly doubled between 1993 and 2005.  Among African Americans, it climbed from 83 to 128 per 100,000. The rate of stroke in African American women is almost twice that of White women and African American women have a higher risk of dying from a stroke than White women. Stroke is the fourth highest killer of Hispanics.  In fact, 25 per cent of all deaths in Hispanic men are due to stroke, and the number rises to 33 per cent for Hispanic women.  Hispanics between the ages of 45 and 59 have more than three times the risk of suffering stroke than Whites.

Strokes are commonly called ‘brain attacks” because they mirror heart attacks. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to your brain is interrupted or reduced. This deprives your brain of oxygen and nutrients, which can cause your brain cells to die. A stroke may be caused by a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or a leaking or burst blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke).  About 85% of strokes are ischemic strokes.  Brain hemorrhages can result from many conditions that affect blood vessels, including uncontrolled high blood pressure and weak spots in your blood vessel walls (aneurysms).  Some people may experience a temporary disruption of blood flow through their brain (transient ischemic attack or TIA) also called a mini-stroke. If you’ve had a TIA, you are at greater risk of a full-blown stroke that could cause permanent damage later.  More women are having strokes during or right after pregnancy. That’s because more of them start out with unhealthy conditions like high blood pressure even before the hormonal changes kick in.

A stroke happens fast.  The most common signs of a stroke are sudden.  Watch for these signs and symptoms, if you think you or someone else may be having a stroke.  Seek immediate attention, if you notice any signs or symptoms. Call 911right away.  Every minute counts.  The longer a stroke goes untreated, the greater potential for brain damage and disability.

  • Trouble with walking. You may stumble or experience sudden dizziness, loss of balance or loss of coordination.
  • Trouble with speaking and understanding. You may experience confusion. You may slur your words or have difficulty understanding speech.
  • Paralysis or numbness of the face, arm or leg. You may develop sudden numbness, weakness or paralysis in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side of your body. Try to raise both your arms over your head at the same time. If one arm begins to fall, you may be having a stroke. Similarly, one side of your mouth may droop when you try to smile.
  • Trouble with seeing in one or both eyes. You may suddenly have blurred or blackened vision in one or both eyes, and you may see double.
  • Headache. A sudden, severe headache, which may be accompanied by vomiting, dizziness or altered consciousness, may indicate you’re having a stroke.
  • Women may also have other symptoms, such as feeling sick to your stomach, face and arm or leg pain, hiccups, feeling very tired, chest pain, shortness of breath or racing heartbeat.Many factors increase your risk of a stroke that can be modified with lifestyle changes, such as a heart-healthy diet that is also good for your brain, exercise and lifestyle changes.
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes.
  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (a sleep disorder in which the oxygen level intermittently drops during the night).
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Use of some birth control pills or hormone therapies that include estrogen.
  • Heavy or binge drinking.
  • Use of illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines.
  • Personal or family history of stroke, heart attack or TIA.
  • Being age 55 or older.
  • Race — African-Americans and Hispanics have higher risk of stroke than people of other races.
  • Gender — Men have a higher risk of stroke than women. Women are usually older when they have strokes, and they are more likely to die of strokes than men.

The same things that are bad for your heart are bad for your brain, making it crucial to control blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol, to stop smoking, to keep active and to commit to leading a healthier lifestyle.  Reduce your chances of having a stroke by learning the risk factors and working with your physician to reduce your risk. Stroke is a largely preventable, treatable and beatable disease. You have the power to fight stroke – and win.

For more information: www.strokeassociation.org

Sheila Thorne is a member of the Multicultural Leadership Committee of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.

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