When most of us think of a stroke victim, we immediately think elderly. We rarely associate the word stroke with a woman in her 20s or 30s. Yet it is just that population that is experiencing a surge in strokes, particularly during pregnancy or immediately post-partum.
A new study led by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta found that stroke rates for women who are pregnant, or have just given birth, increased an immense 54 percent over the course of 13 years.1 Between 1994 and 2007, pregnancy-related hospitalizations for stroke rose by more than 2,200 cases across the United States.
The scientists combed through a database with several million discharge records from hospitals around the country. By 2007, there were approximately 71 strokes among every 100,000 hospitalizations for deliveries. But the stroke rate increased by 47 percent for pregnant women and an astounding 83 percent for women in the 12 weeks immediately after giving birth.
While all women are at a higher risk for having a stroke during pregnancy due to greater blood volume as well an increased chance of developing high blood pressure or blood clots, the reality is that’s always been the case. So why the larger numbers of women having strokes now?
Mainly because there are a lot more women who already have high blood pressure and heart disease before they even conceive a child! Approximately 20 percent of the women in America today are obese when they become pregnant, which is a major factor in both ailments. Even those who are healthier and fitter when they become pregnant are at an increased risk if they gain too much weight during the pregnancy. And while it is true that normal post-partum fluctuations in hormones are significant in and of themselves, they are downright dangerous in those with multiple risk factors for stroke.
But this news should not be that surprising considering that stroke rates have been increasing among younger adults in general for a number of years. The same research team conducted a study this past spring that found that strokes are on the rise among all those under 45 years of age. The scientists analyzed records from hospitals in 41 states across America and compared the ages of those hospitalized for ischemic stroke — the most commonly occurring type — between 1994 and 1995, and again between 2006 and 2007.
Across the board, in every age group from 5-year-olds to 44-year-olds, in boys and girls and men and women alike, the stroke rates had gone up. The largest jump was actually for boys and men between the ages of 15 and 34, who experienced an increase in their rate of hospitalization for strokes of 51 percent.
And cardiovascular disease, which puts you at greater risk for having a stroke, is on the rise as well. Earlier this year, the American Heart Association published a forecast of “The Future of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States,” which reported that one in three Americans has been diagnosed with some form of heart disease. The report also speculated that the largest increases will be in the rates of stroke and heart failure, which will climb to 24.9 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The CDC study seems to be the first nail in the coffin (literally) proving them right.
Nor is this a uniquely American problem. Strokes are responsible for approximately 5.7 million deaths each year around the world. According to a 2009 report by a European medical group called Action for Stroke Prevention, the number of strokes in European countries was 1.1 million per year in 2000 and is expected to increase to 1.5 million per year by 2025.2
The story is much the same in Asia. Researchers at the Beijing Anzhen Hospital in China reported in 2008 that the number of strokes caused by brain blood clots increased by nearly 9 percent a year in Beijing between 1984 and 2004.3 During those two decades, both obesity and cholesterol levels had risen dramatically.
So, whether you are considering pregnancy or not, start taking care of yourself. A healthy diet and a regular exercise routine will lessen your risk factors for stroke, not to mention high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and a whole host of other illnesses. Clearly, you’re never too young to start getting fitter and healthier. Not only do the risk factors for serious maladies like stroke accumulate over the years, giving you a greater chance of having a sickly, miserable old age, but the problems can start cropping up even now while you are still young. And with potentially permanent issues to grapple with such as the loss of function in a limb, slurred speech, and impaired understanding of language — not to mention death — stroke is a serious infirmity with long-term consequences that no young person should have to endure.
1 Kuklina, Elena V.; Tong, Xin; et al. “Trends in Pregnancy Hospitalizations That Included a Stroke in the United States From 1994 to 2007.” Stroke. 28 July 2011. American Heart Association. 2 August 2011. <http://stroke.ahajournals.org/content/early/2011/07/28/STROKEAHA.110.610592.abstract>.
2 undefined. “Stroke Crisis is Costing Europe’s Economy $56 Billion a Year, New Medical Report Reveals.” Daily Mail. 9 December 2009. Associated Newspapers Ltd. 4 August 2011. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1234342/Stroke-crisis-costing-Europes-economy-56billion-year-new-medical-report-reveals.html>.
3 Lyn, Tan Ee. “Strokes Rise Sharply in China Economic Boom: Study.” Reuters. 31 January 2008. Thomson Reuters. 4 August 2011. <http://uk.reuters.com/article/2008/02/01/health-china-strokes-dc-idUKHKG15151320080201>.