A stroke is more common among the elderly; however, a significant number—which is on the increase—also occur among people under the age of 45 years. Up to three hours after an individual experiences the first symptom of a stroke is often referred to as the “golden window” because it is the period of time physicians say is crucial for patients to go to a hospital to receive medical care in order to restore blood flow to the brain and minimize or reverse damage.
Sadly, a new national survey by Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, released on January 12, reported that patients under the age of 45 may underestimate the urgency of stroke symptoms and most say they would likely delay going to the hospital for help. “Timely treatment for stroke is probably more important than for almost any other medical problem there is,” explained David Liebeskind, MD, professor of neurology, Director of Outpatient Stroke and Neurovascular Programs and Director of the Neurovascular Imaging Research Core at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He added, “There is a very limited window in which to start treatment because the brain is very sensitive to a lack of blood flow or to bleeding, and the longer patients wait, the more devastating the consequences.”
The study authors asked more than 1,000 individuals nationwide what they would be likely to do within the first three hours of experiencing weakness, numbness, difficulty speaking or difficulty seeing, all common symptoms of a stroke. Among those under age 45, only about one out of three said they would be very likely to go to the hospital. An astounding 73% said they would likely wait to see if their symptoms improved. “That’s a real problem,” said Dr. Liebeskind. “We need to educate younger people about the symptoms of stroke and convince them of the urgency of the situation, because the numbers are going up.”
Since the mid-1990’s, the number of young adults between 18-45 discharged from US hospitals after suffering a stroke has soared as much as 53%. It is estimated someone has a stroke about every 40 seconds in the US, totaling almost 800,000 new stroke patients a year. In 2007, Jennifer Reilly was one of them. She said, “I woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating headache. I was 27 years old, pretty active, pretty healthy and was not prone to headaches. I thought it was a really odd thing that happened.”
After arriving at work that day, Ms. Reilly shared her story with a co-worker who insisted she go to the hospital immediately. Reilly eventually ended up at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center where Dr. Liebeskind told her she’d had a stroke. “I was really skeptical,” said Ms. Reilly. “I didn’t have any of what I thought were the classic symptoms of a stroke, nor did I fit the classic description of a stroke patient. I was 27 and healthy.” Ms. Reilly noted that weeks before the headache, she would also experience numbness periodically in one of her hands. “Half of my left hand would turn numb, from just one second to the next,” she said, “but, once again, I brushed it off as if it was nothing.”
Tests revealed that Ms. Reilly’s stroke was caused by a rare condition called moyamoya that slowly causes certain blood vessels in the brain to narrow over time. Most patients (about 85%) suffer what are known as ischemic stroke, during which arteries in the brain become blocked, cutting off oxygen. Ischemic stroke can strike anyone at any age, and is often associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and obesity. “The good news is, there are steps we can take to lower our risk of stroke,” explained Dr. Liebeskind. A healthy diet and regular exercise, as well as not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption, have all been shown to lower your risk of stroke.
Just as important as knowing what puts you at a higher risk for stroke, is knowing the symptoms when you see them. Physicians urge you to know the signs of stroke and act “FAST.”
If you or someone near you experiences:
Arm weakness or
Speech difficulty, it’s
Time to call 9-1-1
“Believe it or not, it’s on the order of minutes or hours when somebody has to seek medical attention,” explained Dr. Liebeskind. He added, “There simply is no time to wait. It’s a message that we clearly need to get to younger people more effectively.”