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Stroke on the Rise:

Higher Rates Among the Young and Middle-Aged

Stroke is striking a growing number of younger Americans—even visitthose who would assume they’re too young to worry about their risk and may not realize they have high blood pressure.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and a leading contributor to serious, long-term disabilities. It occurs when a blockage prevents blood flow to the brain, or when a blood vessel bursts in or around the brain.

Rise in Stroke for Those 15 to 44

While stroke risk increases with age, researchers are reporting a troubling increase in the number of strokes in young and middle-aged people.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compared stroke hospitalizations in 2006 and 2007 with ones in 1994 and 1995.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Among males 15 to 34, a 51 percent increase in the number of strokes
  • Among females 15 to 34, a 17 percent increase in the number of strokes
  • Among males 35 to 44, a 47 percent increase in the number of strokes
  • Among females 35 to 44, a 36 percent increase in the number of strokes 

More Young Stroke Victims in Virginia Hospitals

In a separate study, the Virginia Stroke Systems Task Force determined that approximately 22 percent of the stroke patients at Virginia’s four largest hospital systems were younger than 55—a percentage higher than the national average.

“I’m extremely passionate about preventing stroke in the young because of the significant disabilities that occur,” says University of Virginia Health System neurologist Nina Solenski, MD. “It’s devastating to think that you could spend the next 20 to 25 years in a nursing home for something that could have been corrected earlier on. No one wants to live their life that way.”

What are some of the contributing factors?

Solenski, co-chair of the Virginia Stroke Systems Task Force, points to a combination of lifestyle choices, health conditions and genetic factors in contributing to the growing number of strokes among the young. Smoking, obesity, heavy drinking, high blood pressure, family history—all can play a role, as can conditions such as heart disease.

How can I reduce my risk?

The good news is that there are ways to reduce your risk of stroke, no matter your age. A combination of healthy living habits and preventative monitoring can make a big difference, Solenski says.

“High blood pressure is one of the strongest risk factors,” she says. “It’s one of the ones that are so asymptomatic—you have no idea it’s occurring—and yet it’s easily treated.” As such, she urges regular monitoring of blood pressure, even if it’s just by using the blood pressure machine in your local supermarket or pharmacy. If there are signs you’re developing high blood pressure, speak with your physician.

She also suggests smokers quit and that drinkers consume alcohol only in moderation. These steps, along with eating a healthy diet and reducing sodium intake, not only lower your risk of stroke but reduce the risk of other health problems as well.

What are the symptoms of stroke?

It’s essential to recognize the symptoms of stroke, because the first three hours after a stroke are the “golden window” for treatment, Solenski says.

Symptoms of stroke include:

  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis of the arm, face or leg
  • Confusion or trouble speaking
  • Sharp, sudden headache
  • Dizziness and loss of balance
  • Vision problems

“If people have any of these signs and symptoms, even if they think they’re in great health, they should call 911,” Solenski says.

What are the treatment options?

The University of Virginia Health System offers a comprehensive array of stroke treatments, including innovative options that are available nowhere else in the region. UVA’s arsenal includes everything from clot-busting drugs and devices to traditional surgery and leading-edge options such as Gamma Knife radiosurgery.

“Recovery really is for life,” Solenski says. “With aggressive, early rehabilitation, the outcomes can be relatively good even in the most devastating strokes.”

Where can I learn more?

Check out the University of Virginia Stroke Center’s site

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