Strokes strike younger adults as diabetes and obesity raise the risks

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Diabetes due to obesity may be increasing the risk of strokes among younger adults, recent research indicates.

This attack on the brain is striking more people between 20 and 45, according to a study presented at the International Stroke Conference in San Antonia.

Focusing on trends in the greater Cincinnati area of approximately 1.3 million people, the study data indicated that the strokes striking people between the ages of 20 and 45 was 7.3 percent in 2005, compared to 4.5 percent in 1993 to 1994.

“In the hospital, I was taking care of patients. I just had a string of young stroke patients and by young, in this case, I’m referring to 50 year old. But that’s much younger than the typical, average age of stroke [patients] which is closer to 70 or a little above 70 even,” said study author Dr. Brent Kissela, associate professor at the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute.

“To have a bunch of 50 year olds back to back to back caught me by surprise, and made me wonder, would we be seeing more strokes at a younger age?” Kissela mentioned that high blood pressure is the largest risk factor for stroke. Other medical risk factors include high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

“I’m kind of interested in diabetes as a risk factor for stroke and from our previous research, we’ve looked at this and we’ve shown that diabetes leads to a substantial risk for stroke in younger patients,” he said. “And so there’s reason to think there would be more strokes in young people given the epidemic of diabetes and obesity.”

Kissela worked with a team of other medical professionals in his area to survey stroke data and how the ages of patients had changed over the last several years.

Laura Vaught, stroke coordinator at Rush University in Chicago, didn't work with Kissela's group but noted the same trend in the Chicago area.

“Coming through the hospital and rehabilitative services are more and more people between the ages – there are a few in their 30s – but more in the 40s and 50s,” she said.

Typical stroke symptoms include sudden trouble walking, speaking, numbness or weakness of face, trouble seeing and severe headache with no cause, according to the National Stroke Association. An estimated 795,000 strokes will strike people this year.

For any age, the ability to detect symptoms using the acronym “F.A.S.T.” could make a difference between permanent disability and full recovery. Here's what to look for and what to do: someone smiles and one side of the face droops (F), one arm drops when both are elevated (A), slurred speech occurs (S), it’s time (T) - get help by dialing 9-1-1 or contacting the closest hospital or stroke center.

The effects of a stroke vary by the brain area impacted. Two million brain cells die every minute during a stroke, as the stroke cuts off oxygen and blood flow to the brain, according to the National Stroke Association. This massive cell death can lead to permanent brain damage, disability or death.

Though younger people who have a stroke may typically recover more quickly, Kissela discussed instances in which the effects are irreversible.

“We do see people who are young who are permanently devastated from their stroke, that is especially tragic because they lose the opportunity to have so many valuable years of productive life for work and for family,” he said.

Vaught said that a stroke can affect people in ways that extend well beyond the physical damage. “Their self-image, their position in the family, community, work covers a huge gamut of different things not only physically but mentally and socially.”

Whether or not more young adults are at increased risk of stroke, prevention can help. Prevention guidelines include checking blood pressure, working to lower cholesterol levels and controlling diabetes and weight.

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