While real progress has been made to reduce the number of strokes among older adults 75 and older, a worrying trend is emerging among younger adults in the United States.
Among adults 49 and younger, stroke has increased by 40% in the past two decades, according to published reports. This trend of stroke affecting more people in the prime of life has far-reaching implications for families and our communities. Approximately 10 percent of all strokes occur in adults between the ages of 18 and 50.
Strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is disrupted – due to a blood clot or a ruptured blood vessel. Ischemic strokes make up about 85 percent of strokes, which occur when blood flow to the brain is blocked. The remaining 15 percent are hemorrhagic strokes that occur as a result of a leaking or bursting of a blood vessel in the brain. Each year, about 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke, making it the leading cause of disability in adults and the fifth leading cause of death.
Historically, stroke among younger adults has been rare and linked to conditions such as cancer, pregnancy, blood disease, heart disease, vasculitis, oral contraceptive use, illegal drug use, and thrombosis, a condition in which the blood clots easily . .
But researchers comparing data over time found that the risk factors for the younger group (18-34) were in line with the traditional risk factors for the older group: smoking, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The smaller group also has an additional risk factor of frequent use of marijuana and some illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine, amphetamines, ecstasy and cocaine, all of which have been linked to hemorrhagic strokes.
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We are seeing an increase in methamphetamine-related brain hemorrhage in our community, and Oregon now ranks second among the states for the highest rate of methamphetamine-related deaths.
Heavy marijuana users 18 to 44, who also smoke tobacco, are more likely to have a stroke. (Heavy use is defined as inhaling 10 or more times a day.) Ongoing research is studying the way marijuana is used, such as by smoking, food, or oils, which increase the risk of stroke the most.
Stroke in young adults is particularly devastating because many of them are the primary dependents and parents of young children. About 20 percent to 30 percent of these young stroke survivors will experience moderate to severe functional impairment for the rest of their lives. Only half of young people with stroke return to work. On average, it takes eight months for patients to return to work. In addition to difficulty moving and communicating, many stroke patients suffer from long-term pain syndromes, epilepsy, cognitive impairment, depression, fatigue, and impotence.
Fortunately, 80% of strokes can be prevented through lifestyle modification. To reduce your risk of stroke:
Maintain physical activity and maintain a healthy weight
Eat healthy and reduce your intake of salt, refined sugars and saturated fats
Get help to stop using drugs. If you are not using drugs, do not start. Connect with friends and local resources for help quitting smoking
Cut down on alcohol and cannabis
Know your numbers:
Normal blood pressure less than 120/80 (systolic/diastolic)
Normal cholesterol is less than 200 (LDL cholesterol is less than 100)
Target HBA1C for diabetics less than 7 percent (test for hemoglobin-bound blood sugar)
Our comprehensive Stroke Center team at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in RiverBend and many other community partners are working hard to try to reduce stroke through prevention, public awareness, and rapid emergency response. It is essential that everyone knows how to recognize the symptoms of a stroke because people who have a stroke often lack awareness of their symptoms. Family members, friends, or bystanders should call 911. To identify stroke symptoms, use the simple acronym BE FAST. Look for sudden changes in balance, eyesight, face, arms, and speech. The last “T” is for time – a reminder to quickly call 911. Stroke is an emergency!
Dr. Eileen Scalabrin has worked as a Hospital Neurologist at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in RiverBend since 2010 and is the medical director of the Comprehensive Stroke Center at RiverBend. PeaceHealth, headquartered in Vancouver, Washington, is a not-for-profit Catholic health system providing care to communities in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. For more ways to keep yourself healthy: peacehealth.org/healthy-you .