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Strokes on rise in young, middle-aged

WASHINGTON -- When a stroke hits at 52, as happened to Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, the reaction is an astonished, "But he's so young." The reality is that strokes can happen at any age, even to children -- and they're on the rise among the young and middle-aged.

So it's crucial to know the warning signs, no matter how old you are.

"Nobody's invincible," warns Dr. Ralph Sacco, a University of Miami neurologist and past president of the American Heart Association.

Every year, about 795,000 Americans have a stroke. Some are caused by bleeding in the brain, but most are like a clogged pipe. In such ischemic strokes, a clot blocks blood flow, starving brain cells unless circulation is restored fast.

The vast majority of strokes do occur in older adults, but up to a quarter of them strike those under 65, Sacco says.

In the Southeast, the so-called stroke belt, the figure can be markedly worse. At Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, a stunning 45 percent of stroke patients are young or middle-aged, said stroke center director Dr. Cheryl Bushnell.

More ominous, recent government research found that hospitalization rates for ischemic strokes over the past decade have jumped by about a third among people ages 15 to 44.

Sometimes strokes in the young are flukes with no warning signs, as Kirk's appeared to be. Dizziness sent the Republican senator and Navy Reserve commander to the hospital. He had a tear in the carotid artery in his neck that blocked blood flow to his brain, triggering a stroke. His doctor said yesterday Kirk was continuing to improve.