Would you recognize the symptoms of a stroke? And would you seek help or “wait it out?” A new national survey by Ronald Reagan University of California (UCLA) Medical Center shows that most younger people (under the age of 45) underestimate the urgency of stroke symptoms and would likely delay going to the hospital.
Up to three hours after a person experiences the first symptom of a stroke is often referred to as the “golden window.” It is crucial, say physicians, for patients to get to a hospital during this window of opportunity to receive medical care that will restore blood flow to the brain and minimize or reverse damage.
“Timely treatment for stroke is probably more important than for almost any other medical problem there is,” said David Liebeskind, M.D., professor of neurology at the medical center.
“There is a very limited window in which to start treatment because the brain is very sensitive to a lack of blood flow or to bleeding, and the longer patients wait, the more devastating the consequences.”
The survey asked more than 1,000 people nationwide what they would be likely to do within the first three hours of experiencing weakness, numbness, difficulty speaking, or difficulty seeing, all common symptoms of a stroke.
Among those under age 45, only about one out of three said they would be very likely to go to the hospital. A staggering 73 percent said they would likely wait to see if their symptoms improved.
“That’s a real problem,” said Liebeskind, who is also director of outpatient stroke and neurovascular programs at the medical center. “We need to educate younger people about the symptoms of stroke and convince them of the urgency of the situation, because the numbers are going up.”
In fact, since the mid-1990’s, the number of young adults between the ages of 18 and 45 discharged from U.S. hospitals after suffering a stroke has jumped up to 53 percent. It’s estimated that someone has a stroke about every 40 seconds in the U.S., totaling nearly 800,000 new stroke patients a year.
In 2007, Jennifer Reilly was one of them. “I woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating headache,” said Reilly. “I was 27 years old, pretty active, pretty healthy, and was not prone to headaches. I thought it was a really odd thing that happened.”
Upon arriving at work, Reilly shared her story with a co-worker who insisted she go to the hospital right away. Reilly eventually ended up at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center where Liebeskind told her she’d had a stroke.
“I was really skeptical,” said Reilly. “I didn’t have any of what I thought were the classic symptoms of a stroke, nor did I fit the classic description of a stroke patient. I was 27 and healthy.”
Reilly said weeks before the headache, she would also experience numbness periodically in one of her hands. “Half of my left hand would turn numb, from just one second to the next,” she said, “but, once again, I brushed it off as if it was nothing.”
Tests revealed that Reilly’s stroke was caused by moyamoya, a rare condition that slowly causes certain blood vessels in the brain to narrow over time. Most patients (about 85 percent), however, suffer from ischemic stroke, a condition in which arteries in the brain become blocked, cutting off oxygen.
Ischemic stroke can happen to anyone at any age, and is often associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and obesity.
“The good news is, there are steps we can take to lower our risk of stroke,” said Liebeskind. A healthy diet and regular exercise, as well as not smoking and limiting alcohol consumption, have all been shown to lower your risk of stroke.
Just as important as knowing what puts you at a higher risk for stroke, is knowing the symptoms when you see them. Doctors urge you to know the signs of stroke and act “FAST:”
- Face drooping,
- Arm weakness, or
- Speech difficulty,
- Time to call 9-1-1.
“Believe it or not, it’s on the order of minutes or hours when somebody has to seek medical attention,” said Liebeskind. “There simply is no time to wait. It’s a message that we clearly need to get to younger people more effectively.”