James Finch watched what he ate, ran 30 to 40 miles a week and was known at work as “the crazy fit guy, always talking about races and eating healthy.”
He had been training to run a marathon in New Mexico when, on March 3, 2016, he stumbled into the break room at work and collapsed.
“It shocked everybody that I had a stroke,” said 39-year-old Finch, of Lakewood, Colorado. “Here I am doing everything right, and I had this life event happen.”
Finch is among a growing number of younger adults who experience stroke. Recent studies point to a 44 percent spike over the last decade in the number of young Americans under 45 who were hospitalized due to stroke.
“We are seeing more strokes in younger people,” said Mark Alberts, physician-in-chief of the Hartford HealthCare Neuroscience Institute and chief of neurology at Hartford Hospital. “A stroke can happen to anybody at any time.”
Alberts said up to 40 percent of strokes in younger people are of unknown origin, while risk factors and lifestyle habits account for others.
“Number one, they have stroke risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, smoking and obesity,” said Alberts. “Another group of strokes are caused by drug use, such as cocaine; HIV, which can increase the risk of stroke; and vascular dissections from such things as doing sports or car accidents.”
Recognize and react
Stroke symptoms are largely the same in young people as they are in older people, but the challenge is recognizing stroke and reacting quickly.
“Young people think they are invincible. They think that it’s a disease of older people, so they are more likely to ignore symptoms or not act upon them promptly,” said Alberts. “Delay in treatment may lead to poorer outcomes.”
Alberts advises younger people to manage risk factors by drinking responsibly, avoiding illegal drugs and avoiding injury to the neck if at all possible. “Knowing the risk factors for stroke — hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes — and reducing your risk is also important,” said Alberts.
Like Finch, young people have the potential to recover more fully from stroke, said Alberts. “Young brains heal better than older brains.”