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Stroke in young adults: Causes and more

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CausesRisk factorsSymptomsStroke treatmentsSummary
Stroke is more common among older adults, but people younger than the age of 45 can have a stroke, too. Certain factors can increase your risk of stroke.
Medically reviewed by Heidi Moawad, M.D.
Written by Suan Pineda
Updated on November 28, 2023

A stroke happens when there is an interruption in the blood supply to a region of your brain, or there is damage to a blood vessel in the brain. The condition commonly occurs in older adults (adults ages 65 years and above) because of age-related health risk factors. But it can also happen to young people.

Health conditions, lifestyle choices, and certain factors increase the risk of a stroke in young people. Knowing more about it can help you identify if it happens to you.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article uses the terms “women,” “men,” or both when discussing people assigned female or male at birth to reflect language that appears in source materials. 

While gender is solely about how you identify yourself, independent of your physical body, you may need to consider how your personal circumstances will affect diagnosis, symptoms, and treatment. Learn more about the difference between sex and gender here.

Causes of stroke in young adults

A young adult doing yoga, thinking about the causes of stroke in young adults.
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While stroke usually occurs in older adults (adults ages 65 years or above), up to 15% of strokes happen in children and adults younger than age 45 in the United States. Globally, this number is a bit higher — up to 20% of people ages 18–50 years experience a stroke. More than 795,000 people have a stroke each year in the United States.

The causes of a stroke in young adults are similar to those in older adults, such as having diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

There are several types of strokes, which include:

  • Ischemic stroke: A blood clot or a blockage in the artery that carries blood to a region of the brain leads to an ischemic stroke. The blockage happens because of fat buildup in the artery. Ischemic strokes are the most common types of strokes. About 87% of the strokes are ischemic. Although they are less common among young adults, their incidence is rising.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: A broken blood vessel in your brain may lead to a hemorrhagic stroke. This may happen due to high blood pressure or in case of an underlying condition causing the blood vessels to become weak.
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA): Disrupted blood flow within the brain leads to a TIA, also known as a ministroke. The causes of a TIA are similar to those of an ischemic stroke, but the disruption in blood supply within a small area of the brain is temporary. 

Risk factors

The risk factors for stroke in young adults are similar to those for older people. But according to a 2020 study, the risk factors in young adults are more varied than in older adults. This is because some risk factors are more prevalent in young adults.

Some risk factors include:

Sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease is a genetic condition that affects the ability of your blood to transport oxygen as it should, including the areas of the brain. This condition affects children since birth and is the most common cause of stroke in children.

This means that young adults with sickle cell disease will also have a higher risk of stroke. This is because there’s currently no cure for the condition, meaning they would need to monitor it throughout their lives.

Obesity

Obesity can increase the risk of a stroke due to complications of obesity. High blood pressure and high cholesterol in people with obesity can weaken blood vessels as well as cause blockage with fatty deposits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity is just under 40% in people ages 20–39.

High blood pressure 

High blood pressure plays a key part in the majority of strokes. It weakens and damages blood vessels, which can lead to stroke.

High blood pressure often occurs in older adults (adults ages 65 and older), but some experts say it affects 1 in 8 adults between ages 20 and 40.

High cholesterol

High cholesterol, specifically LDL, can lead to fat buildup in the blood vessels. This is known as atherosclerosis — the blood vessels become narrow and stiff. This can lead to high blood pressure and a blockage in blood vessels. 

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Sex

In adults younger than 30 years, females tend to have more strokes than males. This is because of certain risk factors. According to a 2020 study, risk factors such as the use of birth control with estrogen, pregnancy, and migraine with aura affect females.

But after the age of 45, the incidence of stroke is seen more in men than in women. This may be due to hyperhomocysteinemia, a condition that causes irregularities in blood clotting. According to the study above, this condition is four times more likely in men.

Other conditions

Other conditions that may present a risk for stroke include:

  • viral infections
  • excess alcohol intake
  • heavy smoking
  • pregnancy
  • family history of stroke

Symptoms 

Symptoms of a stroke are similar among young and older adults. They include sudden:

  • confusion
  • problem speaking
  • difficulty seeing
  • difficulty understanding speech
  • feeling of numbness and weakness in the face, arm, or leg — this happens on one side of the body
  • dizziness
  • loss of balance
  • problem walking
  • severe headache

FAST is an acronym that helps you quickly identify the symptoms of stroke:

  • F is for face: If someone is having a stroke, one side of their face droops. You can check this by asking them to smile and see if one side is drooping. 
  • A is for arms: Raise both arms. If one of their arms drops, it may be due to a stroke. 
  • S is for speech: Check if someone is having a stroke by asking them to repeat a simple phrase. If they’re slurring their speech, they may be having a stroke. 
  • T is for time: If you identify any of these symptoms, you will need to take quick action. Call 911 or your nearest emergency service right away. Prompt treatment is the key.

Stroke treatments

Treatment for a stroke depends on the type of stroke you’re experiencing. 

  • Ischemic stroke: Doctors may prescribe blood thinners like aspirin and anticoagulants to people experiencing an ischemic stroke. Doctors may administer a medication known as a tissue plasminogen activator. It comes in an injection form and helps dissolve a blood clot.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: Healthcare professionals may prescribe medication to lower your blood pressure. If you have been taking anticoagulants or blood thinners before your stroke, a doctor may give you medication to counter these medicines’ effects.

Doctors may prescribe the following medications:

Depending on your condition, a healthcare professional may consider surgery.

It’s also important to practice preventive measures, such as:

  • eating a balanced diet
  • some form of physical activity
  • managing your blood sugar levels
  • managing your blood pressure 
  • avoiding alcohol and smoking

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Summary

Stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures or when there’s a blood clot or blockage that disrupts the blood flow to a part of the brain. Although it’s more prevalent among older adults, strokes can also happen in young adults.

The symptoms of stroke in young adults are similar to those in older adults, such as numbness in the face and limbs, confusion, slurred speech, and difficulty walking. It’s important to spot these symptoms early for prompt treatment.

Risk factors for a stroke include obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. If you have any of these risk factors, talk with a healthcare professional about ways to reduce your risk of having a stroke.

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