“When we think of strokes, we often associate them with older adults. However, strokes can happen at any age, and they’re not as rare in young adults as you might think,” says Murray Hewlett.
“In South Africa stroke is the second most common cause of death after HIV/AIDS and a significant cause of morbidity. A staggering 15% of strokes occur in those aged 18-50.”
A stroke is like a traffic jam in your brain. It happens when something blocks or bursts a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells. When that road gets blocked, your brain doesn’t get what it needs, and its cells can start to die. Just like when a roadblock causes cars to pile up, a stroke can make your body stop working correctly.
Strokes can have severe consequences, including paralysis, difficulty speaking, memory problems, and even death.
Types of Strokes
There are mainly three types of strokes:
Ischemic Stroke: This is the most common type of stroke, accounting for about 85% of all cases. It happens when a blood clot or plaque buildup in an artery blocks blood flow to a part of the brain. Without enough blood and oxygen, brain cells in that area can die.
Haemorrhagic Stroke: This type of stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures or leaks. It leads to bleeding into or around the brain, which can damage brain cells. Haemorrhagic strokes are less common than ischemic strokes but often more severe.
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA): Often referred to as a mini-stroke, a TIA is different from the other types of strokes because it is temporary. It occurs when there is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain, but the blockage is brief, and the symptoms usually resolve within a short time (usually less than 24 hours). TIAs are warning signs that there may be an underlying issue that needs medical attention because they can precede a full-blown ischemic stroke.
“Each type of stroke has distinct causes, risk factors, and treatments,” adds Hewlett.
“Recognising the surprising causes of strokes in young adults is crucial for prevention and early intervention.”
Surprising Causes of Strokes in Young Adults
One of the biggest culprits behind strokes in young adults is stress. Prolonged stress can lead to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for strokes, and can also contribute to the formation of blood clots, which can block blood vessels in the brain, causing a stroke.
Another unexpected factor is substance abuse. Certain drugs can lead to elevated blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, and even arterial dissection – a tearing of the blood vessel walls – all of which can precipitate a stroke.
Alcohol abuse can raise blood pressure and lead to an increased risk of atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder known to cause strokes., while smoking damages blood vessels and increases the risk of clot formation.
A lesser-known contributor to strokes in the young is undiagnosed medical conditions.
Conditions like sleep apnoea, which disrupts breathing during sleep and lowers oxygen levels in the blood, can lead to hypertension and increase the likelihood of a stroke.
Autoimmune disorders like lupus or even infections like COVID-19 have been linked to strokes in younger individuals. These conditions can cause inflammation and blood vessel damage, making the arteries more susceptible to blockages.
Other conditions, such as poorly managed diabetes, being overweight or obese, and high cholesterol can increase stroke risks.
Lastly, certain genetic factors play a role in strokes among young adults. Some individuals may carry genetic mutations that predispose them to blood clotting disorders, making them more susceptible to stroke.
Preventing Strokes in Young Adults
While some stroke risk factors are beyond our control, Affinity Health lists several proactive steps you can take to reduce your risk:
- Eat a balanced diet, engage in regular physical activity, and maintain a healthy weight.
- If you have conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol, work with your healthcare provider to manage them effectively.
- If you smoke, seek support and resources to quit smoking.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption and illicit drug use.
- Learn about your family medical history and discuss any unusual symptoms or concerns with your healthcare provider.
- If you have specific risk factors or experience symptoms like severe headaches, sudden weakness, or difficulty speaking, seek immediate medical attention. Early intervention can significantly improve outcomes in the event of a stroke.
- Schedule regular check-ups with your healthcare provider to monitor your overall health, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and other relevant factors.
- Incorporate stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness, meditation, or yoga into your daily routine.