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Strokes are often associated with older people. However, while the number of elderly individuals being diagnosed for stroke is declining, the number of people younger than 65 years who are hospitalized for stroke is increasing.

A stroke occurs when blood supply to a part of the brain is severely restricted or lost, leading to death of the brain cells. Also called cerebrovascular accident or CVA, a stroke is a medical emergency because it can lead to death or permanent disability.

Strokes usually affect elderly individuals, and the risk increases as one gets older. Studies show, however, that in recent decades, the number of elderly individuals who develop stroke is decreasing. Nevertheless, stroke is still a leading cause of deathin the US and in the world.

Studies show that every year, almost 800,000 Americans have a stroke, and 130,000 of these die from stroke (one in every 19 deaths).

About two-thirds of these people have strokes for the first time in their lives, while the rest have had a previous stroke. People who survive may suffer from permanent disability.

What is more alarming, however, is that recent studies also show that the number of younger adults who are developing strokes is increasing. In 2009, it was found that one-third of people who were hospitalized for stroke were younger than 65 years old. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also reported that stroke rates are on the rise among teenagers and young adults (15 to 44 years old). Previous studies showed that stroke in this age population accounted for five to ten percent of all strokes, and was considered as one of the top ten causes of childhood death. Recent studies, however, reveal that as much as 10% to 15% of all strokes occur in the young. One of the challenges in preventing and managing stroke in the young is that it is not recognized or diagnosed early because the disease is often associated only with the elderly.

Why Do Young People Have Strokes?

Stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is interrupted, either due to a blockage in an artery (called ischemic stroke) or a leak or bursting of an artery supplying the brain (called hemorrhagic stroke). Most strokes (85%) are caused by narrowing of the blood vessels feeding the brain due to atherosclerosis and acute blockage due to blood clot formation. These occur because of high blood cholesterol level, which causes accumulation of fat and formation of hard deposits (plaque) in the inner walls of the arteries. These progressive changes are usually associated with aging, because of the chronic nature of the condition.

Recent studies suggest, however, that younger adults and even teenagers are already developing strokes, not because of the narrowing of their arteries, but because of other factors that increase their risk of stroke.

These include having low levels of good (HDL) cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, lipid disorders, alcohol abuse, and tobacco use. The use of oral contraceptives and human growth hormone has also been linked to strokes in the young. Other studies also show that a tear in the wall of an artery in the neck (arterial dissection) due to whiplash injury or other neck injuries can lead to a stroke. But for some young stroke victims, the cause cannot be determined.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • WebMD. Strokes and the Toll They Take on Younger Adults.
  • WebMD. Why Young People Have Strokes: Unraveling the Mystery.
  • MedicineNet. Strokes Rising Among Teens, Young Adults: CDC.
  • Neurology. Recognition and management of stroke in young adults and adolescents.
  • CDC. Stroke Facts.
  • Photo courtesy of Daniel Oldfield by Flickr:
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