Stroke victims are getting younger, says a new analysis, but experts aren't really sure why.
Research appearing in Neurology found that the average age of stroke victims decreased from just over 72 years old in 1993-94 to just over 69 years old in 2005. Likewise, in the early '90s, nearly 13 percent of strokes happened in people younger than 55.
By contrast, in 2005, that percentage had gone up to just under 19 percent.
The study's authors said the finding had "great public health significance," which is only underscored by fact that stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., as well as the number-one cause of adult disability.
A stroke is what happens when blood flow to the brain stops, thus cutting off the brain's oxygen and blood supply. That, in turn, causes brain cells to die, which can cause permanent damage.
Major risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, heavy drinking, high salt intake and smoking. Dr. David Loya, an emergency medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente West L.A. Medical Center, points to those factors as the reason for the study's finding.
"It's probably because people are getting risk factors of diabetes, obesity and hypertension at a younger age," he said. "Therefore they're getting the strokes at a younger age."
But some aren't totally convinced that's the answer. Some experts guessed that heavier use of MRI scanning technology may simply be uncovering more strokes in young people than was found in the past.
It's possible that plays a role, said Loya. "But I think that the role that imaging technology plays in lowering the stroke age is less than the impact of the risk factors of stroke."
Whether or not you've already got some of the risk factors, Loya said "there's always time to improve your health." He advised people – those who are young, especially – to get educated on what will increase your stroke risk.
"See your doctor regularly, do exercise, avoid smoking and make sure you don't have any risk factors," he said. "And if you do, keep them medically managed and under as good control as possible."
The latest data available from the county's Department of Public Health showed that in 2008, several areas in South Los Angeles had some of the worst stroke mortality rates in the county, including Compton, East Compton, City Council Districts 8 and 9 and Westmont.
Photo by Reigh LeBlanc via Flickr Creative Commons.