Every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke — and that someone might be younger than you think.
While stroke is often thought of something that hits later in life, the reality is, anyone can have a stroke. And research shows that stroke rates are declining in adults 75 and older while rising in young and middle-aged adults.
“This is obviously a cause for concern,” says Ahmed Itrat, M.D., stroke medical director for Cleveland Clinic Akron General. Stroke — a disruption of blood flow to the brain, either because the flow is blocked or a blood vessel bursts — is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it’s a leading cause of disability.
A study published in the journal Stroke highlights an especially worrying trend. Researchers found an 11 percent overall rise in intracerebral hemorrhage strokes over a 15-year period, and increases were highest in younger and middle-aged adults. This type of stroke, which is more deadly and disabling than other types, occurs when blood vessels in the brain rupture and bleed. Experts called the study’s findings “very alarming” and say it stresses the need for earlier intervention.
Chronic conditions, overlooked symptoms may contribute
What’s behind the uptick in stroke in the younger set? Experts say health conditions that increase a person’s risk for stroke are becoming more common in this age group.
Obesity, a risk factor for stroke, affects middle-aged adults more than any other age group, federal data shows. An estimated 44.3 percent of Americans ages 40 to 59 have obesity, compared to 41.5 percent of those 60 and older. The prevalence of high cholesterol, another risk factor for stroke, is also greatest among adults 40 to 59 years old, according to a 2020 CDC report, and more than half of adults in this age group have high blood pressure, which is the leading risk factor for stroke.
Risk factors for stroke
Health conditions that can increase risk:
- Previous stroke or mini stroke
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Sickle cell disease
Behaviors that can increase risk:
- A diet high in saturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Tobacco use
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“So, conditions that used to not really pop up until people were in their 60s and older are now occurring in people who are younger,” says Mitchell Elkind, M.D., chief clinical science officer at the American Heart Association.
Another explanation has to do with overlooked symptoms. A study published in 2020 found that almost 30 percent of adults under the age of 45 don’t know the five most common symptoms of a stroke: numbness of the face, arms or legs; confusion or trouble speaking; loss of balance; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; and severe headache.
Even if people are aware of these warning signs, “there are many other stroke symptoms that people need to recognize,” Itrat says.