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Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang a reminder that strokes can happen at any age

Pittsbugh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang suffered a stroke earlier this month.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

A 26-year-old professional athlete having a stroke?

By now, the news of Kris Letang's health scare has made headlines across the globe. The Pittsburgh Penguins' defenceman wants it that way, explaining in a statement released by the team that "by making my condition public at this time, I can help other people," by letting them know the risk factors associated with strokes – and the fact that they can strike at any age.

It's an important message, given that many people have no idea what the warning signs of stroke are.

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A stroke is a sudden loss of brain function that occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted or blood vessels in the brain rupture. Strokes can lead to life-long impairments and disability. Every year, there are about 50,000 strokes in Canada.

Many people might be surprised to learn that strokes can occur at any age. In total, about 4 per cent of strokes occur in people 18 to 45, said Dr. Rick Swartz, a stroke neurologist and research scientist with the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery. In as many as half of those cases, doctors are never able to find a cause for the stroke, Swartz said.

However, experts say rising rates of obesity, the increasing prevalence of sedentary lifestyles and consumption of foods with too much fat, sugar and salt are resulting in more people having strokes at younger ages.

After Letang began feeling dizzy and nauseous in late January, doctors realized he had suffered a stroke. They discovered a small hole in his heart called a patent foramen ovale (PFO), which has likely been there since birth. It might sound grave, but PFO is actually quite common, affecting about one in four adults, said Swartz, who is also a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. The vast majority of people will never experience any symptoms. But PFO does seem to be linked to a higher chance of stroke in some people, Swartz said, adding that it's not necessarily a cause, but might be a correlation.

Estimates suggest that roughly three-quarters of strokes hit people 55 and older. But in recent years, more people in their 30s, 40s and early 50s have experienced them, said Dr. Dale Corbett, neurosciences professor at the University of Ottawa and scientific director and CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery.

"Sedentary lifestyles, bad diets and all those kinds of things are probably starting to creep into the statistics," he said.

It's a sobering thought, particularly given the knowledge gap around what a stroke looks like. Corbett says there are five "cardinal signs" that people of every age should know – and that the person experiencing them should seek medical attention as soon as possible:

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  • Sudden weakness, tingling or numbness in a limb
  • Sudden loss in speech or inability to understand speech
  • Sudden loss of vision, which can include blind spots and double vision
  • Sudden headache (a headache that is very severe or feels unusual)
  • Loss of balance

About 80 per cent of strokes are caused by a blood clot, and in many people the symptoms may be reversed if they are given clot-busting medication within a few hours of having the stroke. That's why many health professionals use the term "time is brain" when trying to emphasize the importance of getting medical attention for a stroke as quickly as possible, Corbett said. If someone is experiencing these symptoms, experts advise calling 911 so that paramedics can start treatment instead of wasting valuable time driving the individual to the hospital.

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