Stroke rates decline for the old and rise for the young

Lifestyle differences such as diet may account for the diverging trends.

Baby boomers and those over the age of 55 have seen their stroke rates continue to decline. However, for those under the age of 50 stroke rates have increased, while in people between 35 and 39 rates have more than doubled. A new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association points to obesity, diabetes, and a failure to take prescribed medications as reasons for the increase in younger groups.

We spoke to the study’s lead author Joel N. Swerdel to find out more.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study?

Joel N. Swerdel: There had been a few other studies that reported an increase of strokes in younger adults, and we had been collecting data that included nearly all hospitalizations for stroke over the past 20 years in New Jersey. This dataset presented an opportunity to explore the question in a larger population than was previously reported.

RG: What have you discovered?

Swerdel: We found that while the overall number of strokes in New Jersey was decreasing, the rate of strokes in those under 50 years old was increasing. For example, in those between the ages of 35 and 39, the rate more than doubled: in 2010-2014 it was about 2.5 times the rate in the same age group between 1995-1999.

RG: How did you find this?

Swerdel: We used a technique called an Age-Period-Cohort analysis which is used to better understand whether a person’s age, period in which they lived, or their birth cohort is the most important factor in disease rate changes.

RG:  Can you speculate on why baby boomers have a lower rate while younger people have an increased rate?

Swerdel: For the first 10-15 years of the “golden generation”, those born between 1945 and 1954, they were less exposed to foods with high sugar content. For example, highly sugared breakfast cereals only became popular in the 1960’s when this group was already in their teens. This may have put them in a better position health-wise than later generations where sugar was more prevalent in their foods. The “golden generation” were also better informed about the ill effects of smoking as they hit their late teens in the early 1960s.

For later generations under the age of 50, we think rates of obesity and diabetes may be an important factor for their increased rate of stroke.

RG: Are the severity of the stokes different among the age groups?

Swerdel: We do not have data in our dataset on the severity of stroke. The important thing here is that those who have stroke at an earlier age and survive will likely have to live for longer with the long-term effects of stroke.

RG: How about those born after the “golden generation”?

Swerdel: I think it is important to note that those born after the “golden generation” shouldn’t give up. The advantage of youth is that changes in behaviors can still alter future outcomes. Changes in diet, exercise level, and taking medications as prescribed will all reduce the risk of stroke. I guess I think of this as sort of a “Requiem for the Pop-Tart generation”. It’s a wake-up call to change.

Image credit Neil Conway.