Health News | Neurology

Younger people are increasingly suffering from strokes according to medical experts at ECU Heath. While risk of stroke increases with age, health care teams have seen an increase in strokes in young people, partly due to a combination of COVID-19, an increase in consuming processed, sugary and fatty foods as well as smoking and vaping.

“With COVID-19, we have noticed an increase in strokes, especially in younger populations,” said Dr. Shailesh Male, stroke medical director, ECU Health Medical Center. “During the peak of the pandemic, my colleagues and I noticed that young patients who do not have vascular risk factors were having strokes. COVID-19, like other infections, increases the risk of forming blood clots and, in turn, can lead to higher risk of strokes.”

Strokes are considered the heart attack of the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood clot compromises blood flow to the brain. This leads to loss of brain function, manifesting in symptoms including: weakness or numbness on one side of your body, slurred speech or difficulty understanding others, blindness in one or both eyes, dizziness and/or a severe headache.

Dr. Male observes a scan on a screen.

Risk factors for stroke can be broken down into two categories: modifiable and non-modifiable.

“We like to focus on the modifiable risk factors, the ones that you can change,” said Dr. Male. “These include hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, physical inactivity and obesity.”

The increase in younger people having strokes are mostly attributed to modifiable risk factors. The rise in popularity of e-cigarettes and vaping has largely been in younger populations. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, makes the heart beat faster and raises blood pressure. Additionally, younger people are generally less healthy than previous generations in terms of diet and exercise.

“Processed, fatty and sugary foods are increasingly becoming a regular part of our diets at a younger age,” said Dr. Male. “This combined with an inactive lifestyle increases almost all risk factors including obesity, diabetes, high blood sugar, hypertension and high cholesterol.”

Non-modifiable risk factors include older age, gender (men face higher risk of stroke), family history, genetics and even race. According to The Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 50 percent more likely to have a stroke than non-Hispanic whites adult counterparts and 70 percent more likely to die from a stroke.

“African Americans have higher incidences of hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, which in combination, increases the risk of strokes,” said Dr. Male.

It is important to discuss risk factors with your primary care provider. If you have had a stroke, your doctor may prescribe preventative medications to address risk factors like blood thinners, cholesterol medication or blood pressure medication. Additionally, lifestyle changes such as exercising more and eating healthier foods are proven to lower your risk of stroke.

“With great treatment options now widely available, it is important to remember, time is of the essence,” said Dr. Male. “The sooner we implement treatment, the better the odds that the patient will recover to their baseline. The benefit of early treatment is preventing long-term disability.”

If a stroke is not caught quick enough, long-term disability and health issues are possible. Most commonly, patients may lose strength on one side of their body or have problems speaking.
The acronym B.E. F.A.S.T. can help quickly identify the signs and symptoms that you or a loved one may be experiencing a stroke:

  • B – Balance problems
  • E – Eye issues like blindness or seeing doubles
  • F – Face drooping
  • A – Arm weakness
  • S – Speech slurring
  • T – Time to call 911