If you think that strokes only affect old people, think again. Strokes occurring in younger victims are on the rise.

Historically, your chances of having a stroke increase with age. But a study has shown that younger people are increasingly at risk of having a stroke – and doctors aren’t exactly sure why.

One theory is that advanced technology such as MRIs allows doctors to detect smaller strokes. Another credits awareness as the reason for the increase. Another likely reason is that risk factors are actually increasing in people younger than age 55.

According to a recent study, risky lifestyle factors that increase your chance of having a stroke include:

High blood pressure

Also known as hypertension, this silent killer is the leading cause of stroke. While high blood pressure is hereditary, it is also a condition that can be controlled with lifestyle changes, such as more exercise and a quality diet.

Smoking

Smoking increases plaque buildup in your arteries, thickens your blood and increases clot formation. Nicotine and carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke also damage your cardiovascular system, doubling your risk for a stroke to occur.

Obesity and lack of physical activity

Diets high in sodium and sugar and low in fruits and vegetables are a major culprit in poor cardiovascular health among young people. Likewise, a sedentary lifestyle also increases the risk of stroke.

Diabetes

Keeping your blood sugar under control is key. While diabetes is treatable, having the disease increases your chance of having a stroke.

Excessive drinking

For middle-aged people, having one alcoholic drink a day probably reduces the risk of stroke by up to one-fifth. However, another study found heavy drinkers, or those who have more than three drinks a day on average, tend to have strokes at an earlier age.

Other factors

Depression, mood disorders and other types of psychological distress have been found to elevate stroke risk by 11 percent.

Of all populations, younger African Americans are the most at risk. “African Americans already had the highest rate of stroke hospitalizations, and it has unfortunately increased,” said Lucas Ramirez, MD, neurology resident at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “This reinforces that we need to make sure that our efforts for stroke prevention and education reach all groups.”

Worried you might be having a stroke, or curious about the signs? Call 911 if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.

By Heidi Tyline King

Do you need to talk with an expert about your risk of stroke? Schedule an appointment with a neurologist. If you are local to Southern California, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting www.Neuro.KeckMedicine.org/request-an-appointment.