Sept. 1, 2011 -- Strokes in children, teens, and young adults are increasing at an alarming rate in the U.S., according to a new study.
Mary G. George, MD, MSPH, and colleagues from the CDC looked at national hospital discharge data from 42 states. They focused on three age groups: 5-14, 15-34, and 35-44. The researchers compared the rate of stroke among these groups from 1995-1996 to 2007-2008.
"The increase in the stroke hospitalization rate from 1995 to 2008 was 30% to 37% higher" among those aged 15-44, says George. The increase was more common in older age groups than the children ages 5 to 14. "In the young adults and adolescents, we were surprised to see that large of an increase."
The researchers also tracked traditional risk factors for stroke. "We found significant increases in high blood pressure, lipid [cholesterol] disorders, diabetes, tobacco use, and obesity ... things we consider traditional risk factors," she tells WebMD.
The researchers evaluated strokes in which bleeding occurs in and around the brain. They evaluated strokes caused by a clot that blocks blood flow to the brain. The clot-caused stroke is known as ischemic.
The most significant findings involved ischemic strokes, George says.
The study is published in the Annals of Neurology. Preliminary study results were presented at the American Stroke Association meeting in Los Angeles earlier this year.
Tracking Stroke Among Young People
While stroke is often thought of as an older person's health problem, recent research has found that strokes in youths and young adults account for up to 10% of all strokes.
While ischemic strokes in older people have been declining in the past 15 years, they have been increasing among younger people.
In the new research, George's team also found that:
- Hospitalizations for ischemic stroke rose for both sexes in all age groups except girls 5 to 14.
- Men had the largest increase in ischemic strokes. For men 35 to 44, it rose 50% over the time period studied. For those 15 to 34, it rose 46%. For boys 5 to 14, it rose about 51%. Put in other terms, 3.1 of every 10,000 hospitalizations for boys 5 to 14 were for ischemic stroke in 1995-1996. For 2007-2008, it was 4.7 per 10,000.
- Women 35 to 44 had a 29% increase in ischemic strokes. Women 15 to 34 had a 23% increase. For girls 5 to 14, the increase was under 3%.
Risk factors for stroke were often found in the patients, George says. Nearly one in three patients 15 to 34 and over half of those 35 to 44 with ischemic stroke had high blood pressure.
About one in four of those 35 to 44 with ischemic strokes had diabetes. Tobacco use, obesity, and cholesterol problems were common. The risk factors, George says, are associated with the strokes.
She also found increases in alcohol abuse and drug abuse in some age brackets.
The findings should serve as a wake-up call for lifestyle improvement, George says. "Seeing this in a young population really underscores the need for adopting and maintaining healthy lifestyles from the time they are very young."
Obesity, Cholesterol Not Only Culprits
"The increasing incidence of [heart] disease risk factors in young patients is very concerning," says Lee Schwamm, MD. Schwamm is vice chair of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. He reviewed the findings but was not involved in the research.
Schwamm agrees it should serve as a wake-up call. Part of the increase, he says, could be due to more sophisticated medical technology. Better imaging technology, for instance, may help identify correctly more strokes in younger people.
While the risk factors studied are associated with stroke, he says that the traditional ones such as obesity and high cholesterol ''play their risks out over decades." As a result, they are unlikely to explain fully the increase, he says.
However, risk factors such as alcohol abuse and drug abuse could help explain the increase. Those risk factors can be linked with strokes in a much briefer time frame, he says.