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Stroke Affects a Younger and Younger Population

April 28, 2010

Simple Lifestyle Changes Reduce Risk of Death, Long-term Disability

Think you’re too young to worry about things like stroke, diabetes, hypertension or heart attack? Think again. Studies increasingly show that devastating and chronic health conditions and the risk factors associated with them are reaching an ever-younger population, says Doug Van Houten, R.N., clinical coordinator of Washington Hospital’s Stroke Program.

"Younger and younger people are being affected by chronic health issues," he says. "The way to treat all these devastating conditions is that we need to start encouraging people at a young age, as young as elementary school, to adopt a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular physical activity and better food choices."

Next Tuesday, May 4, from 6 to 8 p.m., Van Houten and a physician specialist from the hospital’s Stroke Program will present a free seminar focusing on stroke prevention and how a healthy lifestyle can lower stroke risk. The seminar will be held in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont, across the street from the main hospital.

Van Houten points out a disturbing increase in risk factors for several chronic conditions, including stroke, in a younger and younger population, citing data reported from the International Stroke Conference. The data show that the average age of stroke patients decreased by nearly three years between 1993 and 2005.

In another study published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), Van Houten points out that there has been a 25-percent increase in the death rate from high blood pressure, one of the biggest risk factors for stroke.

And the reality is that habits that contribute to stroke and other top ten leading causes of death – such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes – start early, he says.

"In my day, we had active physical education in Kindergarten through grade 12," he muses. "Today, often PE is being cut out of the curriculum. And at lunchtime, kids go to eat in the cafeteria and choose fried chicken tenders, fries and ketchup as a vegetable."

"Studies show that people get really addicted to this type of lifestyle. After school, people are conditioned to stop by the fast food restaurant because it tastes good and it’s really cheap. Then, there’s also the whole thing of smoking to be cool and drinking to be an adult. Add on multitasking to finish daily tasks, and that takes away focus on health."

Van Houten points out that the American Stroke Association (ASA) recommends that everyone should get 30 minutes of exercise a day. The question he asks is: how many people actually do that?

"When I first studying stroke, there were 700,000 cases each year," he says. "The 2010 data says there are 795,000 strokes per year, and that’s just over the last five or six years."

"Are we going to accept cardiovascular disease as our destiny, or are we going to be proactive and turn this thing around?"

During his talk, Van Houten will talk about simple steps for lowering stroke risk.

"It’s not that hard to turn around your stroke risk," he says. "It just takes knowledge plus motivation plus creativity to equal change. Most of stroke risk comes from poor lifestyle habits, and we can all change habits. But you have to have the knowledge and you have to be motivated to change by knowing what an unhealthy lifestyle leads to. For the last part of the equation, I offer creative tips on how to make things work."

For some people, Van Houten says, the catalyst to seek change is simply knowing the facts about stroke.

"With stroke, 25 percent of the people who have a stroke will be dead in a year, and 50 percent will be dead within five years," he points out. "Even with a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which seems fleeting, up to 25 percent will be dead in a year."

Preventing stroke is like planning for retirement, he says. It requires thinking ahead.

"If you spend and spend your money now, and you assume retirement will work out eventually, then you’re not thinking about the long run and the steps necessary to get to a nice retirement," he says. "When it comes to stroke, I’m talking about being responsible health-wise. Start now and find out how you can reduce your stroke risk."

An added benefit of lowering stroke risk by measures like lowering blood pressure, losing weight, quitting smoking and moderating your alcohol intake, Van Houten says, is that you simultaneously lower your risk for heart attack, diabetes, pulmonary embolism and even some types of cancer.

A healthier lifestyle and lower stroke risk

To learn more about stroke prevention and how to start on the path toward a healthier lifestyle, join Van Houten and a member of the Stroke Program’s medical staff next Tuesday, May 4, from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, located at 2500 Mowry Avenue in Fremont, across the street from the main hospital.