Too Young to Have a Stroke?

From an 18-year-old beauty queen to Bret Michaels—stroke can hit anyone regardless of age.

Last week, fans were stunned when rocker and reality TV star Bret Michaels, 47, was hospitalized with what doctors called a “warning stoke,” less than a month after suffering a near-fatal brain hemorrhage. Fortunately the stroke appears to have caused no lasting damage; Michaels was well enough to appear live on Sunday’s finale of Celebrity Apprentice and win the title. But not everyone is so fortunate.

While Beau Biden, the 41-year-old son of Vice President Joe Biden and the attorney general of Delaware, is expected to make a full recovery from the stroke he suffered earlier this month, 18-year-old Miss Hawaii Teen United States Sheryl Wolfe died in April after suffering a massive stroke. That someone could die from a stroke after having no known health problems, as she did, is shocking enough. But her age makes the news even more upsetting.

A stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen to the brain is blocked by a clot (called an ischemic stroke) or rupture (a hemorrhagic stroke), is often considered something that only happens to older people. But even babies can suffer a stroke—though it’s rare. “Young people think they are invincible but nobody is free of stroke risk,” says Ralph Sacco, M.D., chairman of the neurology department at the University of Miami and incoming president of the American Heart Association.

The chance of having a stroke is much less common among younger people though. There’s a less than 1 percent chance of having a stroke under the age of 70. Even among those between 45-54 the risk is only .22 percent. It rises incrementally until age 75 when the risk hits 1.25 percent, according to data provided by Dr. Sacco. Depending on the severity of the attack, stroke can lead to paralysis, memory loss, vision issues and speech and language problems. But many patients can and do recover: The risk of dying from a stroke is less than 1 percent for people under 74, according to 2006 data from the National Institute for Health Statistics.

If symptoms appear, though, it’s important to get help immediately. Quick emergency care is the best way to lessen the severity of a stroke. So call 9-1-1 if you or a loved one experience the sudden onset of numbness or tingling on one side, trouble seeing, difficulty speaking or understanding, or a severe headache.

It’s also never too early to get started on reducing your stroke risk, adds Dr. Sacco. If you smoke, quit. Get physically active—the American Heart Association recommends 75 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous or 150 minutes of mild to moderate. And eliminate heavy alcohol use (five drinks a day or more). Good lifestyle changes we make now can not only reduce our risk of stroke, says Sacco, “but translate into a much better quality of life as we age.”


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