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What causes a stroke? Experts share stroke symptoms and causes

Experiencing a stroke at a young age is not as uncommon as people think.
/ Source: TODAY

Last week, TODAY contributor Bobbie Thomas shared an essay on TODAY, detailing her husband's stroke at age 40. Thomas wrote that she never thought about stroke, or considered it could happen to someone her husband's age.

Earlier this year, “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Riverdale” fans were shocked when actor Luke Perry died at age 52 after suffering a "massive" stroke. While many don't think stroke is something to worry about in midlife, experts stress that a stroke can happen at any age.

What causes a stroke?

“The general population that we think about having stroke are patients that have an average age of 65,” Dr. Ashutosh Jadhav, associate professor of neurology and neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “We know that one out of four people can have a stroke when under 65.”

Thomas stressed that her husband had no known risk factors for stroke.

While little is known about Perry’s recent health, he may have had some risk factors that increased his likelihood of having a stroke. Perry was a casual smoker at one point in his life. He also had a family history of heart disease: His father died in 1980 of a heart attack, according to a profile of Perry in People.

Stroke risk factors include:

  • Previously experiencing a stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Heart disease
  • Drug use

“Risk factors we would see in traditionally older patients, we are seeing in younger people,” Dr. Kristy Yuan, an assistant professor of clinical neurology in the stroke program at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told TODAY. “All of it is becoming more prevalent.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most strokes, 87 percent, are what’s considered ischemic stroke, which happens when something blocks blood flow to the brain.

The remaining 13 percent of strokes are hemorrhagic strokes, when a blood vessel leaks blood or ruptures, causing bleeding in the brain. People with this type of stroke often report the "worst headache of their lives," with loss of vision, vomiting and nausea. The doctors noted that hemorrhagic strokes occur more often in young people, but doctors treat both types of strokes in people of all ages.

“Younger people commonly have a stroke if they have a genetic or inherited clotting disorder. People who are smokers, with illicit drug use, have vessel inflammation and develop clotting in the vessel, they are more prone to have strokes,” Dr. Shraddha Mainali, a neurologist and neurocritical care specialist at The Ohio State University's stroke center, told TODAY.

Stroke symptoms:

With ischemic strokes, Yuan explained that people experience symptoms that spell out the acronym BE FAST:

  • B: Poor balance
  • E: Eye problems, such as loss of vision or double vision
  • F: Facial droop
  • A: Arm or limb weakness
  • S: Slurred speech or trouble speaking
  • T: Time to get to the hospital ASAP

If you notice any of these symptoms, it's crucial to see someone right away. Time is of the essence when it comes to treating a stroke.

How does a stroke kill you?

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., but the number one cause of disability, said Yuan. More than 795,000 people have a stroke each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The experts agree that people should seek immediate help if they suspect that they are experiencing a stroke. Doctors treat ischemic strokes with clot-busting drugs and various interventions can help with hemorrhagic strokes.

“A stroke is a life-threatening condition and it has the potential to get worse,” Mainali said. “If they present to the doctor or the hospital in the right time frame they have the potential to improve.”