Stroke prevention efforts are often focused on older adults. That’s because 60 percent of strokes happen in adults 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While it’s true that stroke risk increases as you age, that doesn’t give younger folks a free pass. More than 30 percent of stroke victims are younger than 65—and that’s not an insignificant number.
“The truth is that strokes can occur in anyone—at any age,” says Carolyn Brockington, MD, neurologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. “It is true that the incidence of stroke—meaning the number of strokes—increases as people get older, but it doesn’t mean you can’t have a stroke when you’re young.”
Although strokes among young adults are fewer in number, they are still a big concern. Strokes in young adults cause a greater economic impact by potentially disabling victims who are just starting or at the peak of their careers.
Plus, the lack of awareness of stroke symptoms among young adults makes them less likely to get prompt and life-saving stroke treatment. This puts them at a greater risk for worse outcomes and even loss of life, according to the National Stroke Association.
Why More Young People Are Having Strokes
On one hand, young adults and even children have always had strokes. However, strokes are becoming more common at a younger age. For example, one 2012 study from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that the proportion of strokes among people under age 55 increased from 12.9 percent in 1994 to 18.6 percent in 2005.
“One of the biggest reasons is obesity in childhood,” says Dr. Brockington. “The diseases that we know are connected to stroke as you get older are now developing earlier.”
Conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes are becoming more common in young adults. Each of these conditions increases the risk of atherosclerosis—the hardening and clogging of blood vessels—which in turn can increase the risk of stroke.
“Let’s say you were obese as a teenager. Now you might develop high blood pressure, or hypertension, in your twenties,” says Dr. Brockington. “Now we’re seeing a shift in the incidence to younger strokes.”
Other Reasons Young Adults Have Strokes
Along with the “classic” types of stroke—hemorrhagic stroke and ischemic stroke—young adults and even children tend to have strokes for different reasons than older adults.
Blood-clotting problems: Seemingly healthy people might form blood clots excessively that put them at risk of stroke. One example is a woman taking oral contraceptives that caused blood clots to go to the brain, according to Dr. Brockington. (Not everyone will get blood clots from contraceptives. Learn more about the effect of birth control on blood clots here.)
Heart problems: “Sometimes people who are younger actually have a structural abnormality that might predispose them to stroke,” says Dr. Brockington. One example is patent foramen ovale, which is a small hole in the heart.
Blood vessel problems: Injuries to the artery may cause a narrowing similar to atherosclerosis. “It’s not that the artery is becoming narrow from plaque, but it’s becoming narrow because it was injured—either through activity or otherwise,” says Dr. Brockington.
Being able to recognize a stroke quickly is important at every stage of life, but unfortunately, the belief that stroke only happens to older adults puts young people at risk.
“Many times, people come in with signs and symptoms of stroke, but they’re told ‘Oh, it can’t be a stroke because you’re so young,’” says Dr. Brockington. “That’s crazy, because it can still be a stroke.”
If you recognize you’re not feeling well and you’re experiencing the sudden onset of stroke-like symptoms, it’s important to call an ambulance for immediate stroke treatment—regardless of your age or any other factor.