Can I Get a Stroke, Even if I’m Young and Healthy?

Five things you thought you knew about stroke.

Every year, about 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke, according to the CDC. A stroke is a sudden interruption of blood-flow to a part of the brain. This prevents essential oxygen and nutrients from reaching that part of the brain, causing it to shut down. If blood-flow isn’t restored quickly, a person will begin to lose the abilities controlled by that part of the brain. Indeed, stroke can cause devastating loss of speech, movement, memory and even vision.

The prospect of a stroke and its effects is frightening. However, 80% of strokes are preventable. Here we clarify some common questions about stroke and stroke treatment so that you have the right information, to better assess your risk of having a stroke and learn to recognize warning signs in yourself or someone else.

True or False: Only older people get strokes

False: Stroke can happen at any age. Although a vast majority of strokes occur in people over age 65, 10 – 15% affect people age 45 and younger. Take actress Emilia Clarke, perhaps most famously known as the “Mother of Dragons” from the popular series Game of Thrones, who suffered her first stroke when she was just 24 years old, and a second one two years later. She described her ordeal in a powerful article, where she talked of her surprise when an unrelenting headache was diagnosed as a stroke. The causes of stroke in younger people are harder to determine, but several studies have pointed to risk factors that are more common in young people including high blood pressure, smoking and dyslipidemia – a condition in which patients have either too much or too little fats in their blood stream. In Clarke’s case, her stroke was caused by a ruptured aneurysm or a bulging blood vessel that led to bleeding in the brain. This is a hemorrhagic type of stroke. Notably, aneurysms are more common in women. Indeed by all intents and purposes, Clarke was a healthy, active woman in her 20’s with nothing to indicate a risk of stroke, but she was able to recognize that something was wrong and get immediate help, which ultimately saved her life.

True or False: Strokes run in the family

True: The biggest risk factors for stroke — like high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes — all have a genetic component. Moreover, direct causes like heart disease and blood clot disorders like sickle cell disease, which can cause a narrowing of arteries and disrupt blood flow, can run in the family and can increase the likelihood of stroke. Your risk also increases if someone in your immediate family has had a stroke. For African Americans, stroke is more common and more deadly—even in young and middle-aged adults—compared to other ethnic or other racial groups in the United States, in part because risk factors like diabetes, and sickle-cell disease are also more common in African Americans. But even if your family has a high risk of stroke, there’s still a lot you can do to decrease your risk: make sure your diabetes is under control, quit smoking, and eat healthy.

True or False: Strokes are more common in men

False: Women are actually more likely to have a stroke than men. Because heart disease is more common in men, many people think that men have a higher risk of stroke. In fact, 55,000 more women suffer from stroke each year than men and stroke is the third leading cause of death in women. It’s things that are unique to women, like pregnancy, use of oral contraceptives, history of preeclampsia/eclampsia and gestational diabetes, and post-menopausal hormone therapy, that increase risk of stroke in women.  Women are also more likely to have migraines with aura, which more than doubles the risk of stroke, and they are more likely to have atrial fibrillation or heart palpitations, which increases the likelihood of a stroke by 5 times. Also aneurysms, or broken blood vessels, are more common in women, like actress Emilia Clarke.

True or False: Stroke symptoms are the same in men and women

False: Interestingly, a study in 2002 found that out of 1,124 men and women diagnosed with stroke, women reported nontraditional stroke symptoms 62% more often than men. Another study in 2009 found that women are 33% less likely to report classic stroke symptoms compared to men.

So what are the classic or traditional stroke symptoms? Doctors recommend remembering the acronym B.E. F.A.S.T:

Infographic for stroke

Women who don’t present with these classic symptoms have reported feeling:

  • Disorientation, confusion
  • Chest pain, trouble breathing, palpitations
  • Muscle numbness and weakness
  • Headache

It’s unclear why women and men have different stroke symptoms, but it can sometimes delay proper diagnostic workup and administration of the proper drugs. So it’s important to recognize both classic and nontraditional symptoms of stroke so one can get attention as quickly as possible.

True or False: Stroke can be treated without invasive brain surgery

True: While major brain bleeds and aneurysms require surgery, strokes that are caused by a clot or a blocked artery can often be treated by neuroendovascular procedures, a remarkable technique that involves threading a wire through a blood vessel that leads to the brain and essentially sucking or plucking out the blood clot. Normally, the wire is threaded through a blood vessel in the groin. However, recent research from Pascal Jabbour, MD, has shown that a different approach, whereby the instrument is threaded through the wrist, is just as effective and even gives patients faster recovery with fewer complications. “Our research demonstrates that all kinds of neurological procedures can be done effectively and even more safely via the wrist,” says Dr. Jabbour. You can read more about the research here.

Remember that 80% of strokes are preventable. Know your risks, the signs and symptoms, and the proper treatments – the facts can prevent lifelong disability or even save someone’s life.

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