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Health, Science, Environment

Strokes on the increase among younger adults

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2012 - The rise in diabetes and hypertension among young people could be part of the reason for an uptick in a potentially devastating illness as youngsters grow older: strokes. Usually regarded as a disease of the elderly, strokes are now more frequent among adults between the ages of 20 and 54, according to a study in the online edition of Neurology.

The study, led by Dr. Brett Kissela of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, found that the rate of first stroke among patients between ages 20 and 54 rose from 12.9 percent in 1993-1994 to 18.6 percent in 2005. This rise occurred while the overall incidence of strokes dropped in white patients 55 and older and in black patients 65 and older.

Stroke is a neurological disorder resulting from a clot in an artery or a brain hemorrhage. Its symptoms might include loss of a motor function, such as speech, vision or balance, as well as a sudden severe headache.

A local expert, Dr. Amer Alshekhlee, neuro-interventionist and medical director at SSM DePaul Health Center’s stroke program, says the public has been caught off guard by the rise in stroke cases among younger people.

“The elderly is the target population for stroke, heart disease and heart attack. But now we are seeing younger people on a daily basis coming to the emergency room with a stroke. We ask ourselves why is that?”

He says the reasons include increased health problems, such as obesity.

“It is one of the risk factors for stroke in general, particularly for the younger population,” he says. “It is associated with multiple risk factors, and all of them collectively can raise the risk of a stroke.” The other risks include hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea and substance abuse.

In spite of what’s known about the harm from these risk factors, he says, “We are surprised when a young person comes into the emergency room with a stroke. It is very devastating to the family, quite emotional, to have a kid, especially a kid, who suffers a stroke.”

He adds that strokes among the young come as a surprise because much of the public’s focus on health conditions is on the elderly.

“This study is important from a public policy point of view.  We have to pay more attention to the younger population,” he says. “A lot of our resources are going toward the elderly population. We have to redirect resources to detect these vascular factors and treat them way before the stroke and disability happens.”

And the attention must begin with young children, he says. He praises the focus on nutritional and dietary recommendations for schools, saying such steps are good ways to help detect and prevent diabetes and hypertension among children. But he says more needs to be done.

“I don’t think we are taking a comprehensive look at kids to try to prevent vascular disease. Most children get vision checks. But I don’t think they get a blood pressure check, which is important from a public policy point of view.”

His message: Strokes are preventable, and prevention should begin with giving children balanced diets that avoid excessive carbohydrates and sugar.

“The second thing, of course, is exercise, exercise, exercise. My three kids are involved three to five times a week in exercise, including swimming and jogging. Prevention is better than treatment.”

When a person suffers a stroke, the sooner the medical intervention the better, he says because “every minute the brain suffers from a lack of blood supply, millions of cells die.”

That’s why he adds this word of caution: “If you notice signs of sudden neurological dysfunction, such as headaches, that are not usual for the kid, definitely bring the kid to the emergency room.”

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