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Younger people are having more strokes; COVID may be one reason why

Hospital hallway
Posted at 9:25 AM, Mar 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-28 12:25:27-04

UNITED STATES — Strokes are typically associated with the elderly, but did you know an estimated 10% of strokes occur in people under 50? Now, COVID-19 may also play a role in that number rising. Knowing the warning signs may prevent stroke from limiting your future mobility or even preventing death.

If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that health risks are completely different than decades ago.

As Dr. Eric Arias, an endovascular neurosurgeon with Swedish Neuro Network, points out COVID plays a big role. He explains COVID is known to cause a hypercoagulable state where you create more blood clots. 

“In the last couple of years, our lives have changed dramatically and it’s mainly because of COVID," Arias said. “And so, in people of any age, you can create these clots and they can go to your brain, and then, if that blocks an artery in your brain, that part of the brain does not get blood and that’s what causes a stroke.”

This has led to seeing a great deal of increases in strokes related to COVID, especially in younger people who doctors didn’t see strokes in previously. The American Heart Association says the stroke rate in the US is declining in adults 75 and older, yet rising in adults 49 and younger. 

“The risk factors for stroke that were originally taught are bad diet that causes high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking. Those are the main risk factors for stroke and we definitely see those risk factors play a role. However, nowadays, you see a lot of other risk factors that come about that people aren’t so aware of," Arias said.

Those factors include drug use, predominantly cocaine and methamphetamines, having strokes secondary to oral contraceptive use, and dehydration.

“I think a lot of it is behavioral. There is definitely things that we do and that people do on a day to day life that put them at risk for stroke," Arias said. "You just have to realize that you’re not invincible and you can have a stroke even at a very young age.”

These changes may mean being on top of your health from an early age. However while the risk may be greater for some, the technology to help has advanced dramatically.

“As scary as stroke is, we’ve made great advancements in the last few years as far as treating strokes. So, now, we can through a very minimally invasive approach, go up through an artery in the inside, and actually open up arteries that have been included by blood clots," Arias said. "And then, also there’s patients who have hemorrhagic strokes where there is bleeding in the brain and we can actually do the surgery through an opening the size of a quarter and go down and take out that area of bleeding.”

Dr. Arias says these advancements have changed how treatable a stroke can be. However, it doesn’t change the fact how crucial time.

“In the stroke world, time is brain. That’s our saying and the longer you wait while you’re having a stroke, the worse the stroke will be and the less change that well be able to help you," Arias said. "One of the things that makes stroke scary is that we hear about it more, but that’s actually a good thing. We want to get the word out and we want people to understand what stroke is and what the prevalence is. And I think the silver lining is that because of that awareness, we'll get more people to the hospital quicker where we can use these new techniques that we’ve developed that are game changes as far as getting better outcomes for people who have strokes.”