You may think strokes are about as relevant to you as dentures and Depends, but the truth is, one in five stroke victims are age 45 or younger—and that rate is on the rise, according to a new study review sponsored by sponsored by the American Academy of Neurology and published in the journal Neurology.
For the review, researchers from several universities looked at about 60 previous studies before concluding that part of the spike may be attributable to medical advances (like MRIs) that have made it easier to detect the brain-clogging clots—in other words, strokes that may been missed before are now being diagnosed. But there’s also been an alarming increase in conditions that predispose people to stroke, says study author Aneesh Singhal, M.D. Risk factors such as high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes that used to strike later in life are now showing up at a young age in an increasing number of people, says Singhal.
The scariest part: Strokes in 20-somethings are often misdiagnosed—or not diagnosed at all. “The general perception is that this is an old-person disease,” says Singhal. “So the symptoms of stroke in a young person may be construed as something else.” Migraines, seizures, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety are just a few of the diagnoses often given to younger adults who are, in fact, suffering a stroke, he says.
How could doctors mix up the different diagnoses? “The symptoms that young people have may be slightly different from older adults,” says Singhal. People tend to think of trouble speaking, arm or leg weakness, or sudden sensory loss as the primary symptoms of stroke. But in younger people, stroke can be associated with symptoms such as confusion, delirium, seizures, sudden extreme sleepiness, or nausea and vomiting. In other words, your M.D. may not immediately recognize a stroke as a stroke simply because it manifests differently than it would in your grandmother.
Strokes also tend to be caused by different factors in younger people. “In the old, the most common cause is a clot migrating from the heart to the brain,” says Singhal. But younger people are more likely to get strokes that are induced by drugs or a rotation of bones in the spine that can cause nearby arteries to split. It’s also worth noting that estrogen-based birth control may increase your odds of blood clots if you have other risk factors. This doesn’t automatically warrant ditching the pill, says Singhal, but it issomething to discuss with your doctor if you have a family history of strokes.
So what can you do to stop a stroke before it starts? The Rx is simple: “It’s really a lifestyle change,” says Singhal. “Be more mobile. Stop smoking. Restrict alcohol intake to two glasses, preferably of red wine. And avoid recreational drug abuse, including marijuana.”