Yes, strokes can happen to young people too

Think strokes occur only in the elderly? Experts say there’s a rising incidence in younger people.

When pop star Justin Bieber’s wife revealed she had suffered a mini-stroke at just 25, her fans expressed surprise.

“Isn’t she too young?” they asked.

Hailey Bieber’s health shock highlighted a common misconception that medical experts are trying to correct – that strokes only happen to the elderly.

A stroke can occur at any age, and research points to a rising incidence in people younger than 55 years.

In Australia, a stroke strikes every 19 minutes, and about 24 per cent of victims are aged 18-54.

The elderly are still the most at risk, but medical experts say a lack of awareness about the occurrence in young people is costing lives.

‘I could have died’: A young stroke survivor’s story

Priya Sharma, 32, can’t pinpoint the moment she had a stroke eight years ago.

But she’ll never forget the moment her doctor told her just how lucky she was to survive it.

“A few weeks after I left the hospital, my neurosurgeon told me I could have died if I hadn’t received medical attention when I did,” Priya says.

“There was so much clotting and they (clots) had travelled to my lungs but, fortunately, the doctors managed to remove them in time.”

Priya’s survival is even more remarkable, given that she didn’t exhibit the traditional signs of a stroke.

For a week she had suffered a bad case of gastro, becoming so weak and dehydrated that she ended up in the emergency department.

“I was taken to get blood tests and I was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) straightaway,” Priya says.

She stayed in ICU for nine days, underwent two clot retrieval procedures and was prescribed blood thinners.

Priya had to learn to walk and talk again following her stroke, but believes her healthy lifestyle sped up her recovery.

“Ever since, I’ve wanted to show young people that you can come through it,” she says.

Priya Sharma

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when blood supply is suddenly cut off to part of the brain, starving it of oxygen and damaging cells.

The Stroke Foundation says there are two types of stroke – haemorrhagic and ischaemic, which is the most common type.

Ischaemic strokes are most often caused by a build-up of plaque (cholesterol and fatty deposits) in the arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis.

When too much plaque collects in an artery, a blockage can form.

Haemorrhagic strokes are mainly caused by high blood pressure, cerebral aneurysm and other blood vessel malformations.

Strokes in young people

Research shows about 15 per cent of all ischaemic strokes occur in young adults and teens.

Stroke Foundation clinical council chair and neurologist Professor Bruce Campbell says ischaemic strokes may be rising in young adults.

While younger people can have strokes caused by heart problems or blood vessel injury, which are less preventable, Prof Campbell says the increase seems to be in strokes related to lifestyle factors such as smoking, cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure.

“We’ve seen more cholesterol plaque-related strokes creeping into people in their 30s and 40s,” Prof Campbell, who is head of neurology and stroke at Royal Melbourne Hospital, says.

“It’s something we usually see in older patients, but some younger members of our multicultural groups seem to be at higher risk, and lifestyle is also a big factor.”

What are the signs of a stroke?

Time is critical when a stroke occurs, and prompt treatment can save lives.

The Stroke Foundation promotes an easy-to-remember acronym – FAST – for the most common warning signs of stroke, and what to do.

FAST stands for face (facial droop), arms (can’t be raised), speech (slurred or confused), and time – immediately call 000 and say that you suspect a stroke.

How severe are strokes?

It depends on which part of the brain the stroke strikes in, Prof Campbell says.

“It can be minor or severe, depending on how big the blood clot is and where it occurs – whether it’s the part of the brain that controls speech or hand movement, for example,” he says.

“The risk goes up with age, but age doesn’t have any bearing on the severity of a stroke.

“A person can end up dying or very severely disabled, no matter whether they are a teenager, a young adult or an elderly patient.”

While strokes are among the biggest killers in Australia, Prof Campbell says they are more likely to result in disability.

The effects of stroke include weakness or paralysis in legs and arms; difficulty speaking, reading or writing; and sensory and cognitive problems.

Strokes in children

Royal Children’s Hospital clinical nurse consultant Belinda Stojanovski says while rare in children, strokes can affect up to 600 Australian kids in Australia each year.

Problems with the brain’s blood vessels, and complex congenital heart disease are the leading causes.

Blood clotting disorders and infection can also increase a child’s risk of stroke.

“In most cases of childhood stroke, children will present with the FAST signs,” Belinda says.

“But due to a lack of awareness around childhood stroke, calling an ambulance or presenting to an ED (emergency department) is often delayed.”

A third of all childhood strokes occur under the age of one, and there may not be any signs in babies.

“Seizures and extreme sleepiness can be signs but in some babies, stroke is not apparent until the baby grows,” Belinda says.

Read about stroke in adults:

Written by Elissa Doherty.