Why Strokes Are Hitting Young People

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

When I think about stroke, the first thing that comes to mind is people in their 70s or 80s who have had cardiovascular problems for decades. So I was taken aback to hear that a new study found that, in the US, between 1995 and 2008 the number of hospitalizations for ischemic stroke — the kind caused by a blood clot — increased by 30% among people between the very young ages of 15 and 34 and by 37% among people between the ages of 35 and 44 — yes, we’re talking about 15- to 44-year-olds!

Why in the world would more people in the primes of their lives be having strokes? According to the study, which was done by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and was published in the September 2011 issue of Annals of Neurology, the rise may be due to an increase in the risk factors for stroke among that age group, including hypertension (high blood pressure)… diabetes… and obesity. The researchers also said that the results could be due to improvements in the way hospitals track patients admitted for stroke and better imaging tests that enable greater accuracy in identifying stroke.

It would be nice if the increase was just due to better diagnosis… but it’s not. I called hypertension and stroke specialist George Bakris, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Hypertension Center at University of Chicago Medical Center, to give me a clearer picture of the situation because he had carefully examined the study and its results.


Of all the increased risk factors found among young people in the CDC study, hypertension was the most common. One in three stroke patients ages 15 to 34 had hypertension, and more than half ages 35 to 44 had it. Based on his clinical experience, Dr. Bakris wasn’t surprised by these findings, sad to say. He’s been practicing medicine for 24 years and he told me that before 1995, he had never seen an adolescent for hypertension. But over the past 16 years, he’s seen a growing number of them — in fact, today he is treating about two dozen teens for hypertension. He agreed that some of the study findings may have to do with better tracking and imaging, but he said that the vast majority of the results likely stem from the increased risk factors — especially obesity. As Dr. Bakris noted, the rate of being overweight or obese among American teens has quadrupled in the past 25 years, and, of course, obesity has become the most common cause of hypertension in this age group.

Besides obesity, there are other dangerous trends that Dr. Bakris sees in the lives of teens and young adults that he said contribute to high blood pressure and, therefore, stroke risk…

  • More caffeine. Young Americans are drinking a ton of soda and coffee and, now, so-called energy drinks with very high levels of caffeine, all of which can raise blood pressure.
  • Less sleep. It’s not unusual among teens and young adults to stay up much of the night and get just a few hours of sleep.
  • Stress. It is, of course, endemic in our culture, and young people are not immune to it — especially right now with the economy so poor. For example, Dr. Bakris said that some of his young patients can’t find jobs, while others are working the equivalent of three.


As we all know, one tricky thing about hypertension is that most people who have it exhibit no symptoms at all. Add to that the fact that young people aren’t exactly rigorous about getting regular medical checkups, and you have a recipe for a very bad outcome, including a stroke. In fact, Dr. Bakris mentioned that even when he finds high blood pressure in a young person, since the condition doesn’t generally interfere with day-to-day life, it isn’t unusual for the patient to refuse to take blood pressure medication or make the lifestyle changes that could cure it. The heart of the matter is: Youth doesn’t protect you from disease as much as you think it might!


George Bakris, MD, professor of medicine, director, Hypertension Center, The University of Chicago Medical Center.