Strokes, long considered an ailment almost exclusive to the elderly, are afflicting ever younger people, according to two studies published Thursday. The studies warn that death and disability from strokes could more than double globally by 2030, largely due to unhealthy lifestyles.
A third of all strokes occur in 20- to 64-year-olds, a 25 percent increase among that age group over the past 20 years, according to the Global and Regional Burden of Stroke study published in The Lancet Global Health medical journal.
“These findings suggest that stroke should no longer be regarded as a disease of old age,” said researchers.
Worldwide, stroke is the second leading cause of death, after heart disease, and is also a major contributor to disability.
Scientists combed through more than 100 studies from 1990 to 2010, studying stroke patients across the world. They also used modeling techniques when there wasn't enough data.
People under 75 account for 62 percent of new strokes, 45 percent of deaths and 72 percent of illness and disability, according to the study. More than 83,000 people 20 and younger suffer strokes each year.
Researchers warned that the shift in stroke burden toward younger people would continue unless urgent steps are taken to get populations to improve unhealthy lifestyles, namely reducing consumption of salt, calories, alcohol and tobacco.
Meanwhile, a second study published in The Lancet found that the number of people dying from strokes was about 10 times higher in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.
“Despite some improvements in stroke prevention and management in high-income countries, the growth and aging of the global population is leading to a rise in the number of young and old patients with stroke,” read an accompanying commentary published in The Lancet that called for “urgent preventive measures” in low- and middle-income countries.
Researchers said this phenomenon is partly due to a rise in the prevalence of risk factors, including unhealthy diet, high blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity and smoking.
In the U.S., doctors have previously noted an alarming increase in strokes among young and middle-aged Americans, while the number has been dropping in older people.
"Young people think stroke is only a problem of the elderly, but we need to educate them," said Dr. Yannick Bejot of the University Hospital of Dijon in France, who co-wrote the accompanying commentary. He said that using illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine also boosts the chance of a stroke.
"If young people understood how debilitating a stroke is, maybe they would change their behavior," he said.
Despite the increasing proportion of young stroke victims, most strokes still occur in the elderly, and the number of people suffering strokes is increasing even as the world's population ages.
"Some of the increase we will see in strokes is unavoidable because it has to do with people aging, but that doesn't mean we should give up," said Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London, one of the study's authors.
Al Jazeera with wire services