Why You’re More Likely to Have a Stroke Than Your Parents

The prospect of a stroke is a scary thing, and it’s a bigger threat than many of us realize. We focus a lot of attention on heart attacks, heart disease, and cancers, but stroke risk is another health issue that’s looming. Though we typically associate it with old age, people are having strokes at younger and younger ages. In fact, new data shows that while we’ve made some significant progress in lowering the risk in older people, younger Americans are having more strokes than ever.

What happens when you have a stroke?

MRI Image of a brain, where a stroke takes place

Suffering a stroke could have serious consequences. | iStock.com/Highwaystarz-Photography

A stroke, of course, occurs when your brain cells are starved of oxygen. This can happen when blood flow is cut off, similar to what occurs when you have a heart attack. As a result, brain cells die, and the victim can experience memory loss, disabled motor function, or even die. Still, most people, especially younger folks, don’t consider them a serious threat. Well, as mentioned, the data is showing some disturbing trends.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, older Americans are having fewer and fewer strokes as a result of preventative measures and better treatment. Conversely, younger Americans are having more strokes — which is curious considering the progress we’ve made in the older population. So, what’s behind the generational gap?

Why stroke rates are down for older people

Grandparents With Children

Kicking bad habits early is one of the best things you can do. | iStock.com/omgimages

We’ll start at the older end of the spectrum. The study examined data for several time periods between 1994 and 2014As the study said. And for the important nugget: “Stroke rates in those older than 55 years decreased during these time periods.”

So, what happened? Evidently, a number of things. But as study author Joel N. Swerdel told ResearchGate, there was a stretch of time several decades ago when people became aware of the dangers associated with eating certain foods, and bad habits like smoking.

What has changed?

Donuts and candy with sugar spread and written text in unhealthy nutrition

There was a lot less processed foods around when your parents were growing up. | iStock.com/OcusFocus

“For the first 10 to 15 years of the ‘golden generation,’ those born between 1945 and 1954, they were less exposed to foods with high sugar content. For example, highly sugared breakfast cereals only became popular in the 1960’s when this group was already in their teens,” Swerdel said. “This may have put them in a better position health-wise than later generations where sugar was more prevalent in their foods. The “golden generation” were also better informed about the ill effects of smoking as they hit their late teens in the early 1960s.”

So, it appears that the older folks that bucked the stroke risk trend started paying better attention to their health at a younger age. But what about younger people, who’ve been seeing increased risk? With all of the data and information we have available, surely they would’ve followed suit?

How younger people are increasing their risk

A father has a discussion with his son

There are things you can do to prevent a stroke from occurring. | iStock.com

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. For certain segments of the population, the risk of stroke has doubled in recent years. “In those between the ages of 35 and 39, the rate more than doubled: in 2010 to 2014 it was about 2.5 times the rate in the same age group between 1995 and 1999,” he told ResearchGate.

Why is this happening? The researchers think there some relatively simple explanations.

“We think rates of obesity and diabetes may be an important factor for their increased rate of stroke,” Swerdel said. Another factor? Not taking medicines as prescribed. That can negate the effects of medications, which is important if you’re sick or recovering. It can also be a symptom of abuse or addiction problems.

What you can do

Happy woman eating green apple

It is extremely important to adopt better eating habits. | iStock.com

To recap, younger people are having more and more strokes. The main causes are obesity, diabetes, and issues related to prescription medicines. The increased rates of stroke aren’t a good thing, but the driving factors behind the increases are relatively simple to deal with.

For younger people, taking better care of yourself is obviously the first step. Warding off obesity will go a long way toward avoiding diabetes. That helps you hurdle two big risk factors. And using medication responsibly? That might be a challenge if you’re struggling with dependency issues. But otherwise? Talk to a doctor and figure out what you’re doing wrong. Your health could depend on it.