A surprising 75 percent of Americans under age 45 do not know the signs and symptoms of stroke. Even more disturbing, many say they would likely wait out the symptoms — weakness, numbness, difficulty seeing 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 with permanent disability.
Making matter worse, studies have suggested that strokes among people under 45 have increased by as much as 53 percent since the 1990s.
The new numbers come from a survey commissioned by the Ronald Reagan- University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center. That national survey included responses from 1,009 people, 466 of whom were under 45. Without understanding the danger of the symptoms, the vast majority of those younger people, 74 percent, say that they wouldn't seek immediate help.
The new statistics weren’t surprising to Dr. David Liebeskind, a professor of neurology and director of the neurovascular imaging research core at UCLA. “They are in line with what we’ve been seeing,” Liebeskind says.
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,” Liebeskind says.
A stroke happens when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either by a clot plugging up a blood vessel in the brain (80 percent of strokes) or when a blood vessel in the brain tears and spills blood into the brain (the remaining 20 percent).
Risk factors include high blood pressure and obesity.
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.
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
Deadly price of delay
Denial is partly why young people don’t head for the hospital at the first sign, says 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.”