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People suffering strokes at younger ages, study finds

Is stroke on its way to becoming a midlife health problem?

The results of a large new study suggest the answer may soon be yes. U.S. researchers have found that people are suffering strokes at younger ages than in previous decades, a potentially troubling trend that could lead to major problems in the future. The study was published Wednesday in the journal Neurology.

After examining data on stroke occurrences among people between ages 20 and 54 in the greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky areas over one-year periods in 1993-1994, 1999 and 2005, researchers found the average age of stroke sufferers is getting younger. They included only first-time strokes in their analysis.

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Specifically, the average age of people who experienced strokes declined from 71 in 1993-1994 to 69 in 2005. That may not seem like a big drop, but it is indicative of a potentially significant health trend.

But even more striking is the finding that people under age 55 made up a larger proportion of stroke sufferers in 2005 than they did in 1993-1994. In 1993-1994, only 13 per cent of people who experienced a first-time stroke were under age 55; by 2005, that had risen to 19 per cent, or nearly one in five.

"The reasons for this trend could be a rise in factors such as diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol," said Brett Kissela, study author and neurologist with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio said in a press release. While pointing out that improved diagnosis methods could play a role in the identification of younger stroke sufferers, Kissela added that these findings are clearly cause for concern "because strokes in younger people translate to greater lifetime disability."

While the study findings may not entirely reflect the situation in Canada, health experts have been warning for years that rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other health issues related to excess weight are going to lead to greater cardiovascular disease, stroke and other problems in younger people.

Strokes are caused by the loss of blood flow to the brain or the rupture of blood vessels in the brain. This causes brain cells to die, which can result in a number of serious complications, including paralysis, difficulty talking or swallowing, memory loss and pain.

In Canada, a stroke occurs every 10 minutes, according to the Canadian Stroke Network. In many cases, it can be treated if recognized early, but many people are not familiar with stroke symptoms. The most common symptoms include sudden loss of strength or temporary numbness in the face, arm or leg, sudden trouble speaking, sudden vision problems, sudden severe or unusual headache, or sudden loss of balance or dizziness.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, being overweight and atrial fibrillation are among the top risk factors for stroke. Prevention measures, including diet, exercise and quitting smoking can help lower the risk.

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