No matter what your age, you should know the signs and symptoms of a stroke. The acronym F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember:
T-Time to call 911
Anytime you suspect any of these stroke-like symptoms, even in a young person, it's best to seek immediate medical attention. Call 911 and tell the operator you think it's a stroke.
When a stroke is recognized quickly, tPA (Tissue Plasminogen Activator), a clot dissolving medication, can be given right away if the person meets strict criteria. To be eligible for tPA, the patient and/or family members need to provide information about the patient's symptoms and what time they began to help determine whether giving tPA is appropriate. When too much time passes, or no one knows when the symptoms began, tPA is not likely to be beneficial and the stroke can potentially cause severe disability.
Because most of us associate stroke with the elderly population, the signs and symptoms of stroke are often overlooked in young people. Sudden unsteadiness, dizziness or weakness in the young are often attributed to something less medically significant such as dehydration or the flu. Unfortunately, such an oversight can allow brain tissue to die as stroke-directed treatment is delayed. This can be especially devastating in a young person. If the stroke is severe enough, the person may be left with a disability that interferes with normal daily activities or the ability to earn a living.
While the risk for stroke increases with age, young people are at increasing risk. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the incidence of stroke in children, teens and young adults in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate. Between 1995-2008, stroke hospitalization rates for people ages 15-44 increased by 30-37 percent.
One possible reason for the increase in stroke incidence is changes in lifestyle and diets that make younger people more likely to develop the traditional risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure, cholesterol disorders, diabetes and obesity. Young people are also less likely to have a primary care physician or to see one regularly, which may allow these risk factors to go unrecognized and untreated.
Another cause of stroke for young patients, as well as older patients, is a heart condition called patent foramen ovale. This heart defect, which occurs in about one out of four people at birth, is a small, valve-like opening in the heart's wall between the two upper chambers. Many people never discover that they have this defect, but the condition makes them more susceptible to blood clots that can lead to a stroke. It is often the culprit when a young, healthy patient with no apparent risk factors suffers a stroke. Individuals diagnosed with patent foramen ovale may be given an aspirin regimen or other treatments that help reduce the incidence of blood clots.
Learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of stroke is a great way to help people of any age. Additional signs of a stroke to watch for include:
Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, lack of balance or coordination
Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Do not delay seeking emergency treatment for a stroke!
Mondell is the stroke program coordinator at Susquehanna Health's Williamsport Regional Medical Center.