Five years ago, my elderly father stayed up all night on New
Year’s Eve – not for a party, but because my 39-year-old brother had had a
stroke. He was out with friends and became completely paralyzed, unable to
speak or move. His friends rushed him to a hospital and he survived, but he
learned that night that he had a risk factor for stroke. What he didn’t know
was that four years later, he would have another one.
No one ever expects a stroke in someone so young. But the
same risk factors that lead to stroke in older adults—high cholesterol,
obesity, diabetes—are now affecting our youth and young adults. Stroke remains
the leading cause of adult disability in the United States; stroke rates among
people under age 44 have tripled in the last decade, according to a new study
from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Before 1995, 45 of every 100,000 people under age 45 had a stroke. Now it’s 75 of
every 100,000 – and this upward trend shows no signs abating. Younger stroke
victims report worse access to physician care, largely due to lack of health
insurance. And poor care has the potential to lead to devastating
outcomes—working age adults who have become disabled.
I know a lot about this trend, because I sell a
device for arm rehabilitation for stroke survivors. My most recent customers
were a 40-year-old surgeon and a 35-year-old business man, both of whom never
expected to have a stroke, and neither did their parents.
Many of these strokes are caused by behaviors that start in childhood. Consider this:
32% of children under 19 are overweight or obese – that’s 23 million
children. Nearly 20% of high school children report current tobacco use.
Only 37% of children get regular physical exercise.
How old are their arteries? A recent study of children
with risk factors of obesity and high cholesterol revealed that while the
average age of the study group was 13, the average age of their carotid
arteries (arteries that supply blood to the brain) was 45 – their arteries were
30 years older than they were.
Who is to blame? Parents who don’t teach good eating
habits? Schools that eliminate recess and cut sports when the budget is tight?
Tobacco and soft drink companies who create child-friendly marketing? Our
highly interactive yet sedentary lifestyles? Maybe a combination of all of
October 29 was World Stroke Day, designed to call attention to this devastating illness. But
far from being an issue that just afflicts our parents, stroke can affect our
children and young adults – and it belongs front and center on the agenda for
every American family. We can’t control school budgets and corporate marketing,
but we can talk about these habits and raise our awareness of them at home and
in our communities. Many of these risk factors can be mitigated. Healthy
behaviors can be taught, they can be learned. But only if we raise them to the
level of our other family health issues – flu shots? Check. Regular
checkups? Check. Dental visits? Check. Weight control and
regular exercise? Check.
Stroke costs all of us. The direct costs (medications,
hospitals) and indirect costs (lost productivity) add up to about $41 billion
per year. Cardiovascular disease and stroke accounted for 15% of total health
expenditures in 2007 – higher than cancer.
My brother survived both strokes, and he is closely watched by his health care
provider. His risk factor is related to a congenital heart defect, but he can
monitor his behavior and limit his chances of suffering a third stroke.
We need to talk about this, all the time, everywhere and
every day. What did you feed your children for breakfast? What foods will they
choose for lunch? What kind of physical activity will they engage in today?
Does anyone in the household smoke? Are your children healthy enough to outlive