April 4, 2019

Why you shouldn't ignore stroke symptoms

Madison, Wis. — A national survey found that younger people – those in their 40s – are much more likely to wait before seeking care even though they are experiencing the symptoms of a stroke.

The results were not surprising to Dr. Luke Bradbury, UW Health stroke specialist.

“It’s been our experience that younger people tend to wait a few hours up to a few days before seeking care,” notes Dr. Bradbury. “And by then the damage can be significant.”

Part of the challenge is that many associate strokes with older individuals.

When younger individuals experience symptoms – especially when the symptoms are mild, or they don’t have other risk factors – they tend to associate the symptoms with other conditions.

“Even when a person’s symptoms are evaluated by a physician, stroke may not be at the top of the list. Doctors may consider a peripheral nerve problem, for example, and not associate the symptoms with damage in the brain,” Dr. Bradbury comments. 

The number of strokes among younger people has been increasing over the last few decades. Dr. Bradbury explains that the reasons for the increase are likely a combination of factors – one being the increase in health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease among younger individuals. “These diseases are starting earlier in life and as a consequence, we’re seeing the effects of those conditions at earlier ages.”

Another likely reason is that neurologists are getting better at diagnosing strokes. “As the technology has improved, we can see what is happening in the brain and can see damage that we might otherwise not have been able to years ago,” he says.

While there may be an increase in the incidence of stroke, Dr. Bradbury urges some caution.

“Generally speaking, if you lead an active lifestyle, don’t smoke and eat a relatively healthy diet, your risk of having a stroke is likely low.”

And if parents or grandparents have experienced a stroke, that doesn’t necessarily put an individual at a greater risk. Dr. Bradbury gives the example that if someone’s 89-year-old grandfather has a stroke, and he smoked and had heart disease – known risk factors – that doesn’t mean there’s a greater risk for someone who maintains a healthy lifestyle. If there are congenital conditions, such as inherited cardiac abnormalities or connective tissue disorders, then there is more cause for concern.

For individuals experiencing symptoms of stroke, including mild ones, it’s important to get checked out immediately. Even if the symptoms do go away because they could be signs of something bigger on the horizon.

“If the symptoms are mild, someone may be experiencing a transient ischemic attack – or TIA,” explains Dr. Bradbury. “During a TIA the blockage is temporary and symptoms last a very short amount of time. While there may not be damage to the brain, it’s often a warning symptom.”