In the middle of having sex with her boyfriend, Kara Jackson's* heavy breathing suddenly turned into labored breathing.
Her tongue felt swollen, like a balloon in her throat, blocking her airway. Stark naked, she bolted upright and tried to reassure her boyfriend that she was OK. But her mouth could not string together the sentence her brain was forming. "My words totally garbled, like I was tripping over my tongue," she recalls. "I tried again, but I still couldn't speak. That's when the panic set in."
She felt like crying but couldn't even do that. As her boyfriend called 911, Kara thought, I should put on some clothes before the medics arrive. But she couldn't move her left arm. Or stand up.
By the time the ambulance reached her New York City apartment building, Kara was able to speak again. But a throbbing headache had set in, one with a visual aura, as though a camera flashbulb had blinked and stayed on. She told the medics she thought she was having an allergic reaction, although to what she didn't know. Or, she speculated, it was "a really weird migraine"--but quite different from the ones she'd experienced since she was 13. "Truth is, I had no idea what was happening to me," Kara now says.
In fact, at 23, Kara had just suffered a stroke.
This past fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing an alarming rise among young adults in the number of acute ischemic strokes, by far the most common kind, in which the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off due to a blockage. From 1995 to 2008, the number of women ages 15 to 34 who were hospitalized for this type of stroke rose some 23 percent, from 3,750 a year to nearly 4,900. For the next age-group, 35 to 44, hospitalizations jumped 29 percent, from 9,400 a year to nearly 13,400. And a second study found that strokes among 20-to 44-year-old Caucasians (who are generally at lesser risk than African Americans) has more than doubled since 1993.
"This is a significant and scary change," says Brett Kissela, M.D., a neurology professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and lead author of the latter study. Stroke is commonly, and justifiably, thought of as a curse for older people: The average stroke victim is 68 years old. What's causing its rise among the young is one of the most urgent questions facing the medical community today. "The question is, are we seeing more strokes in young people or are we better at finding them?" asks Kissela. "My belief is that we're seeing more strokes. This could prove an expensive and devastating trend for society, as well as for each person who goes from healthy one second to disabled the next."
More from Women's Health: