Strokes aren't an age-specific condition; they can happen to anyone.
Doctors' ability to treat stroke and minimize the long-term effects has grown tremendously in the recent past. But for people under age 45, according to UCLA research, a big challenge is overcoming denial.
More public health efforts have been made to teach people the signs of a stroke, using "FAST":
Because these symptoms aren't always severe, they can lead to delayed action. Too often the mental image most people have of stroke is severe disability, with extremely slurred speech or strong facial droop. But that is not the reality for everyone.
"A stroke can be mild or asymptomatic, but that doesn't change the burden of disease on the brain," says David Liebeskind, MD, director of outpatient stroke, neurovascular programs and the neurovascular imaging research core at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. "Once you have symptoms, they should not be ignored. You can be left with an injury to the brain that may only be seen on diagnostic imaging studies."
Key signs of stroke are the sudden onset of physical weakness, trouble speaking, blindness or noticeable difficulty seeing certain space in front of one's line of sight. When these symptoms are mild — combined with younger age — it can make it harder to diagnose. Luckily doctors have come a long way in their ability to make an accurate determination, and to do it fast. This can and should contribute to greater recognition that young people indeed have stroke.
Responding to stroke
The real hurdle with young people is not their knowledge of the signs, but recognizing them in themselves and taking action.
In a UCLA-led survey of people under 45, about 73 percent of respondents said when experiencing weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking or seeing, they would wait to see if symptoms resolve on their own.
"The problem isn't so much with theoretical knowledge of stroke symptoms," observes Dr. Liebeskind, "but recognizing that if you feel numbness in an arm or slight weakness in one part of the body, it may be related to your brain, and you need to act immediately."
Ideally, people should pursue treatment within three hours of the first signs of a stroke to have the best chance of receiving effective treatments. However, they're more likely to respond in time when they see someone else experiencing a sudden onset of symptoms.
It's important to overcome the stigma of what stroke should look like and who typically suffers. Dr. Liebeskind sees this as the best way to improve emergency action and reduce the condition's debilitating effects.
As far as young people are concerned, Dr. Liebeskind encourages them to follow the advice they get about healthy eating and regular exercise. "Young people should see a doctor every year for preventive health," he says. "They can't count themselves out when it comes to stroke. Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits has a real impact on vascular disease and stroke."
By Patricia Chaney