The Early Signs of Stroke You Need To Know—Even If You're Young

Your stroke risk rises as you get older, but strokes can happen at any age.

Like with many other health concerns, your risk of having a stroke increases as you get older. In fact, every 10 years after age 55, your stroke risk nearly doubles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But strokes can and do happen at any age—sometimes even in children. The CDC noted that around a third of Americans hospitalized for strokes are younger than 65.

Strokes Occurring—But in the Younger Population

In 2016, social media star and model Katie May died after suffering a stroke. The New York Daily News reported that the 34-year-old had "tweaked her neck" when she fell during a photo shoot in late January 2016; afterward, May had tweeted that she had "pinched a nerve" a few days before she was hospitalized.

It turned out the pain May was experiencing was far more serious than a pinched nerve and may have been a warning sign of a stroke. But in a young woman in good health, who would connect neck pain to a stroke?

"When you're younger and in relatively good health, you think that having a stroke is not a possibility," said David Liebeskind, MD, director of the Neurovascular Programs at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The reality is [that] a stroke can strike at any age, said Dr. Liebeskind.

According to TMZ, doctors told May's family that she suffered a carotid artery dissection. It starts as a tear in the artery wall—which can be caused by an injury like a bad spill—and leads to a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain.

While this particular type of stroke is rare, general strokes are on the rise in younger people, according to a February 2022 news release from the American Heart Association. The release provided details regarding the analysis of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study. The study focused on instances of ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke over the course of 29 years (1990-2019) in the US. The researchers indicated that the number of people experiencing strokes was growing, but notably, instances of stroke were happening more to younger individuals.

What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?

So what are the early signs of stroke to look for? Two key clues: A sudden onset of dizziness or severe headache. In an interview with Health, David Newman-Toker, MD, associate professor in the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said those were the most prominent stroke warning signs in women under 45, sometimes accompanied by hiccups or nausea.

The CDC's list of sudden stroke signs and symptoms to look out for beyond headaches and dizziness includes:

  • Facial, arm, or leg numbness or weakness
  • Confusion
  • Troubles with speech or understanding speech
  • Vision problems
  • Balance and coordination issues

"If you have a combination [of symptoms], then something's more likely to be off," said Dr. Liebeskind. Other indications: Your symptoms are totally uncharacteristic for you, or they're associated with neck pain or a recent fall. In those cases, "you have to lean on the side of taking [your symptoms] seriously," said Dr. Liebeskind.

What To Do if You Think You're Having a Stroke

The American Stroke Association indicates that using the acronym F.A.S.T. can help you remember the common symptoms to look for and when to call 911:

  • Face: Look for signs of facial drooping or numbness.
  • Arm: Determine any arm weakness or numbness.
  • Speech: Listen for slurred speech.
  • Time: Call 911 if any of the symptoms are present.

The CDC also stresses the importance of seeking immediate medical attention in the case of a stroke. It advises that it is preferable to call for an ambulance instead of driving yourself or having someone else take you to the hospital, as an ambulance can allow medical staff to start care on the way to the emergency room.

Further, if your emergency room provider tries to diagnose you with something else—like an inner ear infection or a migraine—when you go to receive medical care, don't give up. "Migraine won't kill you, stroke may," pointed out Dr. Liebeskind.

Dr. Newman-Toker also suggested asking your healthcare provider this question: "Why do you think it's not a stroke?" When you do, look for a reasonable response. "If [they] can't answer in a way that sounds halfway intelligible, speak to another doctor," Dr. Newman-Toker told Health.

No matter your age, the bottom line is that you must act as quickly as possible when you notice any symptoms of stroke to get the care that you need.

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