It was a hot July day in Nashville. Sekou Writes, a 51-year-old New York-based writer, just spoke at the graduation of a youth summer program he leads. He stepped off the podium when everything froze.
“I gave up [paper] The program I’ve been holding on to,” Writes said. “I reached for it, but I couldn’t reach it. I’m just stuck there. “
The next thing he remembered were hands on his back, but he couldn’t turn around to see who was supporting him.
“From that moment on, all I saw were clips and woke up in a place with a crib and didn’t know who these people were around me,” Writes said. “My speech center didn’t seem to work. My arms didn’t seem to work. It was disturbing.” He later found out he had a hemorrhagic stroke. (There are two types of stroke. A hemorrhagic stroke involves bleeding in the brain. The more common ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot.)
When you hear about someone having had a stroke, you probably think of a much older person—probably in their 70s or older—who has other medical problems that seem to be common with age. Someone like Writes who exercises regularly and doesn’t have any medical red flags is probably not what you would imagine a stroke patient to be.
But new research shows strokes are on the rise among young and middle-aged people like Writes. A particular type of hemorrhagic stroke, called an intracerebral hemorrhage (ICH), has increased 11 percent over the past decade, according to the American Heart Association.
why? What can be done to stop this trend from developing?
no red flags
When Writes suffered a stroke, he was on day 409 of a personal challenge to run at least 1 mile a day, no matter the weather, location or mood.
He started the streak on his birthday in June 2021. The plan is to see if he can run at least 1 mile a day for a month. The following month, he extended his solo campaign and added a fundraiser to the mission, donating the money to different causes and groups to support the homeless.
“It just kept growing every month, a new mission, and I gave money to new people,” Writes said. “I’ve traveled to 25 different cities and raised over $7,000.”
But when he suffered a stroke, the charity streak came to an abrupt end, at least temporarily.
Lifestyle is a risk factor
“While race, gender and genetic predisposition are contributing factors in some of these cases [of ICH strokes]the more common risk factor is lifestyle,” said Chirag Gandhi, MD, director of the Brain and Spine Institute at Westchester Medical Center in New York City.
When it comes to ischemic and ICH strokes, whether you’re middle-aged or older, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, obesity and physical inactivity all increase your risk, he said. Your risk is higher if you do not have access to good medical care.
John H. Hanna, MD, a vascular neurologist at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey, and medical director of the Atlantic Health System’s Comprehensive Stroke Center, said high blood pressure, or a rise in high blood pressure, in young people should be a major concern.
Christina Johns, MD, a pediatric emergency physician and senior medical consultant at PM Pediatric Care in Annapolis, Maryland, said the data linked high blood pressure and stroke rates in young adults. “This is exacerbated by obesity, poor diet and smoking,” she said. Although not definitively proven, sedentary lifestyles, “particularly increased screen time/measures of staying at home during working from home during the pandemic, may have contributed to this increase,” she said.
What about COVID-19?
Before COVID-19, stroke rates among young adults started to rise. But “in some cases, the stroke is due to a severe infection with COVID-19,” Hannah said. Because the COVID-19 virus is still relatively new, there isn’t any long-term data to support this link.
Still, scientists know that COVID-19 causes “a diffuse inflammatory cascade in the body that affects multiple organ systems,” Gandhi said. Sometimes, that cascade triggers a clot that can lead to a stroke, he said.
prevention through education
The good news is that the lifestyle risk factors that put a person at risk for stroke are not set in stone. You can take steps to help prevent stroke. Making small but meaningful changes to your daily habits can make all the difference.
Gandhi says you can make changes to your lifestyle by combining healthier dietary choices (such as limiting fatty foods and not drinking too much alcohol) and increasing physical activity (such as dedicated daily walks). “Additionally, close communication with physicians for screening, routine physical exams, and possible initiation of medication if needed” are all useful, simple adjustments.
Your doctor can assess your stroke risk and make specific recommendations on how to help you reduce it.
As for Writes, he is working with a physical therapist to improve his mobility, speech and memory. He keeps running and is now paying special attention to staying hydrated. While hydration wasn’t officially a part of his stroke recovery, it supported his body during demanding endurance activities.
In the 2022 New York City Marathon, Writes walked the full 26.2 miles and crossed the finish line with pride.
You don’t have to be a marathon runner to reduce your stroke risk. All your positive changes add up over time.
“I’ve changed. And the change is still showing,” Writes says of his life after his stroke. “I try to go with the flow and focus on improving myself by 1% every day.”