A Stroke -- in Your 20s? It's Not as Rare as You Think

When the actor Frankie Muniz, who starred in the hit sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," told his Twitter followers Tuesday that he'd been hospitalized after suffering a "ministroke," he joked "Have to start taking care of my body! Getting old!"

But Muniz, whose birthday is today, is all of 27 -- hardly old -- and certainly not the age most of us, including most doctors, think of when we think "stroke patient."

In fact, while the mid-20s isn't the typical age at which strokes strike, everybody, from newborns, to teenagers, to the elderly can suffer a blocked vessel that prevents blood from reaching the brain and causing a damaging stroke or a milder episode called a transient ischemic event (TIA), a "ministroke." Actually, a study released in October in the journal Neurology revealed that rate of strokes in younger people - defined by the study as 20-54 - rose significantly between 1994 and 2005. The researchers speculated the trend could be the result of both better diagnostics and increasing rates of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. 

But TIAs and strokes still happen most often in older people because the elderly are much more likely to have accumulated fatty plaques, atherosclerosis, in their arteries. This build-up can lead to a blockage when the vessel closes off, or when a piece of the plaque breaks away and flows into a smaller vessel, blocking it. If that happens in a vessel leading to the brain, it can cause a stroke.

Atherosclerosis is much less common in young people, Dr. Heather Fullerton, the director of the pediatric stroke and cerebrovascular disease center at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBCNews.com. But a variety of conditions can lead to TIAs and strokes.

For example, she said, trauma can cause a tear in a vessel leading to a blood shortage in the brain. Infections that cause systemic inflammation have been linked to ischemic events in young people. Chicken pox is a prime suspect, but, Fullerton said, other inflammatory diseases appear to be linked.

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