If a loved one was experiencing a stroke, would you be able to spot the signs?
For 1 in 3 young adults in the U.S. that answer is a hard no. While stroke is on the rise in young adults, nearly 30% of people younger than age 45 in the U.S. are not familiar with the most common stroke symptoms, according to new research published in Stroke, a journal of the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association. Even more disturbing, a 2016 study found that many people say they would likely wait out the symptoms — weakness, numbness or difficulty seeing — of a potentially deadly brain episode.
And that could be a tragic mistake, because stroke can often be successfully treated if it is caught early.
The first three hours after a person starts to experience stroke symptoms are often referred to as the “golden window,” when doctors can often minimize or reverse damage by restoring blood flow to the brain. Without treatment most will end up dying or will experience permanent disability. Making matter worse, 10% to 15% of the nearly 795,000 people in the U.S. who have a stroke are young adults between the ages of 18 and 45.
What are symptoms of stroke?
Many younger people dismiss telling symptoms because they think that stokes only occur in the elderly. While they may be more common as people age, “we see them at any age from birth till 105,” said Dr. David Liebeskind, a professor of neurology and director of the neurovascular imaging research core at UCLA.
A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either by a clot plugging up a blood vessel in the brain (87% of strokes) or when a blood vessel in the brain tears and spills blood into the brain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and diabetes.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) lists the following as signs that a stroke is occurring:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Signs of stroke in women
Stroke in women can present with different symptoms, which can make it even trickier to identify. These symptoms, according to the National Stroke Association, can include:
- Loss of consciousness or fainting
- General weakness
- Difficulty or shortness of breath
- Confusion, unresponsiveness or disorientation
- Sudden behavioral change
- Nausea or vomiting
The American Heart Association reminds people to use the acronym "F.A.S.T." to know when a stroke is occurring and to call 9-1-1:
Deadly price of delay
Denial is partly why young people don’t head for the hospital at the first sign, said Dr. Maxim Hammer, an assistant professor of neurology and vice chairman for clinical affairs in the department of neurology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Stroke symptoms aren’t painful, so people think they can tough it out or sleep it off.
“Strokes don’t actually hurt, unlike a heart attack or a fractured bone,” Hammer says. “People want to get relief from pain right away. Strokes typically don’t come with pain so it’s easy for people to ignore it and hope it goes away.”
But there’s a big price to pay for ignoring the warning signs.
“If you look at all strokes together, among people who don’t get treatment — one quarter die and another half will have a severe handicap,” Hammer says. “Only about a fourth end up with a reasonably good outcome. Getting treatment right away doesn’t guarantee everything will go smoothly, but it does improve the chances of that happening.”