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updated: 1/23/2012 7:53 PM

More young people having strokes

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Why would a relatively young, seemingly healthy person like U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk have a stroke?

It happens all the time, local doctors say, and while Kirk is 52, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports stroke hospitalizations are on the rise among people under the age of 45.

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"We see people in their 30s or 40s come in with strokes now. Obesity and diabetes are taking their toll ... a lot of it is lifestyle choices," said Dr. Franklin Marden, intervention neuroradiologist at Alexian Brothers Health System.

But strokes are also caused by undetectable problems, even in healthy, young, nonsmokers, Marden said. Those could be hereditary conditions, or small tears in the blood vessels that don't heal properly and end up blocking blood flow to the brain.

"Most of the (strokes) happen to people for whom it's clearly 'not their time' yet," said American Stroke Association spokesman Mark Peysakhovich. "Frankly, if there is anything good that comes of a situation like this, it's a reminder that this is not a problem for old people. This is a problem for all of us."

Peysakhovich said stress can also be a contributing factor, and certainly a U.S. senator who is also a Naval intelligence officer and lives a politician's little-sleep, big-meal, nomadic lifestyle could be impacted.

Kirk's stroke resulted from a carotid artery dissection in his neck, which Marden said is a somewhat rare condition in which a blood vessel tore and diverted blood from the brain.

While there's little that can be done to prevent blood vessel tears, Marden says people can control other stroke-causers by stopping smoking, getting their diabetes and high blood pressure under control and having regular checkups.

If you think you might be having a stroke, don't drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911.

"Time is of the essence," Marden added. "The sooner someone gets to the hospital, the more likely they are to have a better outcome."

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