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The number of people aged 15 to 44 hospitalized for stroke jumped by more than third between 1995 and 2008, say researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The increase may be due partly to the increasing numbers of young people who have diseases such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes -- diseases usually associated with older adults, they added.
In the same 14-year period researchers noted a rise in stroke among youth, they discovered that diabetes, cholesterol and tobacco use "has also increased in adolescents and young adults experiencing stroke," said lead researcher Dr. Mary George, a medical officer in CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention.
"I was surprised to see the extent of cardiovascular risk factors in this young population," she said. The focus on controlling these risks has usually been among older adults, George said.
"We really need to encourage people to lead healthy lifestyles from the time they are very young," she said. "Stroke is largely preventable and eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, [and] avoiding tobacco and alcohol abuse can go a long way to prevent stroke."
The report was published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Annals of Neurology.
For the study, George's team used data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample of the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project to find people hospitalized for stroke.
They found almost one in three ischemic stroke patients 15 to 34 years old -- and over half of those 35 to 44 -- had high blood pressure.
In addition, one-fourth of the patients 15 to 34 years old who had ischemic strokes also had diabetes. Among those female patients 15 to 34, one in four were smokers, as were one in three males aged 15 to 44. Moreover, many had high cholesterol and were obese, the researchers found.
According to the American Heart Association, stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Eighty-seven percent of strokes are called ischemic strokes, where clots or plaque block blood flow to the brain.
Earlier studies found that stroke in teens and young adults accounted for 5% to 10% of all strokes, and that it is one of the top 10 causes of childhood death.
Dr. Larry B. Goldstein, director of the Duke University Stroke Center, commented that "the data presented in this study raises an alarm."
Traditionally, strokes in the very young have usually been caused by different factors than those in older people, he noted.
For adults, "advancing age is a major stroke risk factor, with rates approximately doubling for every decade over age 55 years," he said. "Although about a third of strokes occur in persons under age 65, rates in children and young adults tend to be quite low."
But, he warned, the study suggests that "there appears to be increasing rates of traditional stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, lipid disorders, tobacco use and alcohol abuse in the young who had increasing rates of hospitalizations for stroke," he said.
Although these data can not prove that such changes have caused the increase in stroke hospitalizations among young people, "it is becoming increasingly important to identify young persons who have risk factors that can be addressed with the goal of lowering their future chances of having a stroke," Goldstein said.
Another expert, Dr. Michael Katsnelson, an assistant professor of clinical neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, said that "the prevalence of risk factors for stroke seem to be increasing in the younger population. That makes sense with the obesity epidemic being what it is."
In addition, there is more awareness of stroke, he said. "So, young people who may have, in the past, dismissed seizures or a mini-stroke are going to the hospital and being diagnosed with stroke," he said.
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