Too young for a stroke? No, they happen at all ages

WASHINGTON — When a stroke hits at 52, like what happened to Sen. Mark Kirk, the reaction is an astonished, “But he’s so young.”

The reality is that they can happen at any age — and they’re on the rise among the young and middle-aged.

Every year, about 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke. While some strokes are caused by bleeding in the brain, most are like a clogged pipe. Called ischemic strokes, a clot blocks blood flow, starving brain cells to death unless that circulation is restored fast.

Make no mistake, the vast majority of strokes do occur in older adults. But up to a quarter of them strike people younger than 65.

Recent government research found that nationwide, hospitalization rates for ischemic strokes have jumped by about a third among people ages 15 to 44 over the past decade.

The increase seems to be part of a troubling trend: As Americans get fatter, high blood pressure, diabetes and other artery-corroding consequences set in at an earlier age — meaning resulting strokes can hit earlier, too.

Indeed, research reported in Annals of Neurology last fall found nearly 1 in 3 of the 15- to 34-year-olds hospitalized for a stroke, and over half of those ages 35 to 44, already had high blood pressure.

More women are having strokes during or right after pregnancy, too, the government reported last summer. That’s because more of them start out with unhealthy conditions such as high blood pressure even before the hormonal changes kick in.

Who is at increased risk for a younger-than-usual stroke? African-Americans and Hispanics, more than whites. Someone whose parent had a stroke before age 65 is at extra risk.