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Study: Early Strokes Leave Lasting Effects

black and white brain scan

A recent study says people under the age of 50 do not always recover fully from strokes.

The study followed more than 700 people over an average period of nine years who had suffered a stroke between the ages of 18 and 50. Released through the AmericanHeart and Stroke Associations, the report found about a third had moderate disabilities in independently going about routine tasks like housework and caring for themselves. Dr. Frank-Erik de Leeuw is lead author.

“Most of us have the perception that when you discharge these patients and they leave your outpatient they’ll do quite well,” de Leeuw said. “But if you then go into the details, as we did, it seems that a substantial number of patients are not able to function independently in daily living.”

Roughly 10 percent of strokes occur in those aged 18 to 50 years. De Leeuw says typical care following a stroke lasts a few months, focusing on immediate symptoms like weakness, numbness and language issues. But he adds sometimes difficulties executing daily tasks don’t show themselves until months after a stroke, when patients aren’t under regular care.

“Your daily life and performance is of course very much determined by cognitive performance,” de Leeuw explained. “Are you still able to do complex tasks at work or in the household? Are you able to do your finances? Are you able to fill out your tax forms? Are you able to do complex tasks like running a household? We felt that was another important outcome, particularly in these young patients.”

The study found that nearly 17 percent of patients who suffered a mini-stroke had functional disabilities and 11 percent had poor skills for independence. Those numbers increase with the severity of the stroke. De Leeuw says he hopes the study will shed a light on the need for longer, continuous care following a stroke and reinforce healthy lifestyles to prevent another stroke.

“We are currently doing a study on unemployment,” de Leeuw said. “We see that these young stroke survivors are 10 times as frequent unemployed compared to their healthy peers. It’s not always because they cannot do it anymore, but most of the time they cannot do it at the same level anymore. So if you can then discuss with their bosses or people who can help with rehabilitation perhaps you can adapt the way they have to work. Perhaps these people can go back to work and can make a living of their own.”

Dr. Larry Goldstein is a spokesman for the American Stroke Association. He says younger people tend to recover better from brain injuries than older patients because the younger brain is still developing and more able to adapt. He says the long-term effects found in this study reinforce the need for healthy choices early on in life to prevent a stroke from happening in the first place.

“There’s a big overlap between the causes and risk factors for stroke and heart disease and the causes and risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease,” Goldstein said. “We haven’t proven this yet, but it may be that addressing the same lifestyle and risk factors issues may not only help protect against having stroke, but may also help protect against perhaps developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.”

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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