Many young adults in the US are deceiving themselves about health: nine out of ten believe they follow a healthy lifestyle, but in reality most consume too much fast food, alcohol, and sugary drinks, and have lifestyles that put them at higher risk of stroke, according to a new survey reported this week.

The findings of the survey, conducted by the American Stroke Association (AHA), are released now to coincide with May being American Stroke Month.

In the US, every 40 seconds someone has a stroke.

A stroke is when a blood vessel leading to the brain or in the brain itself bursts or is blocked by a blood clot, thereby cutting off vital oxygen-rich blood to the brain, causing tissue to die. In severe cases, strokes paralyze and immobilize people.

The AHA surveyed 1,248 Americans aged from 18 to 44 about their attitudes to health, their beliefs about health behaviors and what they practise, and their risks for stroke.

According to participant responses, 8 out of 10 Americans aged between 25 and 44 believe they have healthy lifestyles and are more likely to practise healthy behaviors than those in the 18-24 age group.

The findings highlights what Dr Ralph Sacco, neurologist and president of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (AHA/ASA) describes in a statement as a “dangerous disconnect” between what many young Americans believe and do, and how that actually affects their risks for stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.

He said it was important to change this, so young adults make the “connection between healthy behaviors and a healthy brain and healthy heart”.

“If we are not able to help young adults understand the relevance of their actions now and their risk of stroke tomorrow, then we could be looking at an increase in stroke diagnoses and deaths within the next 10 to 20 years,” he warned.

By following a healthy lifestyle, people can reduce their risk of stroke by up to 80 per cent compared to people who follow unhealthy lifestyles, say the AHA/ASA’s new guidelines issued in December 2010.

A healthy lifestyle means following a low-fat diet that is high in fruits and vegetables, keeping alcohol and sugar intake within moderate limits, taking regular exercise, not getting overweight and not smoking.

Although most 18-24 year-olds said they want to live to a ripe old age (on average they said to the age of 98), and have good health for all that time, one-third of respondents don’t believe that following an unhealthy lifestyle at their age will affect their risk of stroke later.

Also, 18% of that age group could not identify one risk factor for stroke (eg smoking, poor diet, cholesterol, high blood pressure, being obese, lack of exercise).

Many in the 25-44 age group also said long life with quality of health was an important goal. On average this group wished to reach the age of 91. From the responses they gave about their health behaviors, they stand a better chance of reaching that age than the respondents in the under 25 age group.

Sacco stressed the importance of starting healthy behaviors at a young age, and entering middle age in “good shape”. His message to young adults was:

“The investment you make in your health now will have a large payoff as you age.”

“We want everyone – especially young people – to strive to avoid stroke, which can affect anyone at any age,” he added.

The survey showed that wisdom about heart health and how one’s lifestyle affects it appears to grow with age:

  • Only 22% of those in the 35-44 age group said they were not concerned about cardiovascular diseases and conditions sucha s heart disease and heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and diabetes.
  • This compares with 36% of 25-34-year-olds saying they were not concerned about these conditions.
  • And among 18-24-year-olds, 43% were least concerned about them.

But there was an alarming lack of awareness of stroke risk when it comes to thinking about oneself as the possible victim: all the three age groups said they were least worried about stroke as a threat to them personally.

Sacco said we should all recognize how severely a stroke can threaten quality of life, and how that can be prevented. We need to go beyond just thinking about how to survive and thrive if we have a stroke, we need to think “in terms of striving for ideal health as well,” he urged.

“Strive, Survive, and Thrive”, is the goal, said Sacco.

Source: AHA.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD