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Young stroke survivors at higher risk for more health problems

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Robert Pritchard suffered a stroke at the age of 22. Robert Pritchard suffered a stroke at the age of 22.

If you think stroke is something only older people need to worry about, Robert Pritchard's story may change your mind.

The Sugar Hill college student and athlete was headed out for a night with friends last year when he began to feel clumsy and weak.    

Robert doesn't fit the mold of a stroke patient. He's young, he's in top physical shape, and has never smoked. But he still had a stroke.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association  shows that younger stroke survivors like Robert  may face serious risks down the road.
      
Pritchard carries himself like an athlete, not a stroke survivor.  But at 23, incredibly, Robert is both.
     
"I mean that's, like, a big thing, I want to get back to where I was before, as far as physically fit, whatever," he said.

The Sugar Hill native was a standout football player at North Gwinnett High School and then played scholarship ball for the University of Central Florida Black Knights.  

But one night last year, driving to Atlanta with his cousin, Robert began having difficulty moving his left side and speaking.

At just 22, he ended up in the intensive care unit. Robert had none of the classic stroke risk factors like high blood pressure or high cholesterol or a history of smoking.

He's not sure why, but he joined a growing number of younger people from their early 20s to their mid-50s who suffer a stroke.

A new study shows those young survivors are at much higher risk of dying in the decades after their stroke than their non-stroke peers.

Payal Fadia, the medical director at Shepherd Pathways, says the stroke study is a wake-up call for both young survivors and those who care for them.

"It definitely shows us that these folks need to have good long-term follow up and access to the appropriate medical care, so that we can minimize their risks of having a future event and their risk of death," Fadia.

Fadia says Robert and other young survivors will need to work carefully with their health care team to stay on top of any complications that might pop up.
 
"The underlying disease that's caused their stroke is still playing an active role, potentially in the rest of their life," Fadia said.

Robert hopes to one day jog -- maybe even run again -- without having to worry about falling down. He's working hard to gain back what the stroke took away.

"I want to stay as healthy as possible, I want to not regress. I want to keep progressing," Pritchard said.

There has been a lot of research on older stroke survivors, but not on young ones.

The stakes are high. The JAMA study followed people who had a stroke between the ages of 18 and 50. About 20 percent died in the two decades after their initial stroke, driving home the need for lifelong approach to helping patients lower their risk factors for another stroke.

For facts, risk factors and prevention strategies for stroke, visit: www.shepherd.org/stroke-facts

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