In your thirties and forties, you may start to lament your first gray hairs, your more frequent back aches, or your slowing metabolism, but the notion of possibly having stroke is likely not even close to being on your radar.
“I think the big myth of stroke is that it’s only going to happen to old people,” says Carolyn Brockington, MD, a neurologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. Many people think that “you don’t have to worry about it if you’re young—you’re fine.”
Who Can Have a Stroke?
The short answer is “anyone.” A stroke can happen at any age, even in childhood. In 2009, one third of patients who were hospitalized by stroke were younger than 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A stroke is a brain injury caused by not enough blood getting to the brain, according to Dr. Brockington. This deprives the brain cells of oxygen, essentially causing them to die off. There are a number of reasons this can happen, and not all of them are linked to age. There are two main kinds of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke is the most common and is the result of a blocked blood vessel; a hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel ruptures.
“We’re starting to see an incidence of stroke in younger adults,” says Dr. Brockington. “Yesterday, I saw someone who was 22 who came into the emergency room with a stroke.” The young woman had sustained a neck injury that hindered blood flow to the brain.
Hemorrhagic strokes caused by brain aneurysms are most common between the ages of 35 and 60, according to the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. Additionally, a 2014 study found that 11 percent of patients with sickle cell disease have a stroke before they reach age 20.
The Rise of Stroke Among Young People
That said, ischemic strokes aren’t exclusive to older adults. In fact, they’re becoming more common across the lifespan.
Common risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, and atrial fibrillation, according to the American Stroke Association. While these conditions and factors typically take time develop and are generally associated with older age, high blood pressure and obesity are becoming more prevalent among young and middle-aged adults.
Among Americans between the ages of 34 and 44, 22.6 percent of men and 18.3 percent of women had high blood pressure, according to a 2015 study in the journal Circulation.
Between 2000 and 2010, strokes increased by 44 percent among Americans aged 25 to 44, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The researchers connected this trend to the growing rates of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity among young people.
If you can have a stroke at any age, then you need to be prepared for a stroke at any age. Period.
“The key is, we want people to recognize the symptoms and come in right away,” says Dr. Brockington. Stroke symptoms come on suddenly, someties over just minutes. These are some of the most common stroke symptoms:
Weakness on one side
Numbness on one side
Problems with speech
Problems with vision
Problems with walking and coordination
If you notice these symptoms, call 911. Don’t wait to see if they go away on their own. “Stroke is very scary, so there’s a lot of denial,” says Dr. Brockington. “It’s not time to look up your symptoms and figure it out on your own. Really, this is time-dependent, and it’s important that people come in right away.”