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Omar Lopez (far right) suffered a stroke in Feb. 2013. (Photo provided by Omar Lopez)

Strokes don't happen to young people. That's what Omar Lopez thought, until he suffered one at 34.

The Goodyear resident, father and husband is one of a rising statistic. The risk for strokes for adults younger than 50 has dramatically increased since the mid-1990s.

"I used to have a pretty normal life," said Lopez, until the morning of Feb. 2, when he began to feel "numbness and tingling in my left fingertips."

He didn't think much of it. He had been running a short time earlier. In fact, Lopez's daily routine was mostly running up to five miles a day before heading to work. That morning he tried to sleep it off.

"I thought it was just a cramp or dehydration," he said.

But later a massive headache crippled him and by evening he began suffering from blurred vision.

"I just didn't know what was going on," he said.

Still, Lopez ignored his symptoms and went to work the next morning. His blurred vision got worse, affecting his left eye. That's when his manager sent him to urgent care. While at the hospital, Lopez had the stroke.

"I could not feel my left side and I couldn't see from my left eye."

Lopez lost all sensation on the left side of his body. His short-term memory was also affected. How could a healthy 34-year-old have a stroke?

Dr. Christina Kwasnica, director of neuro-rehabilitation at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, said risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can contribute to stroke in younger adults.

"Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, those are events now of young adults," said Kwasnica. "People's risk of stroke goes up, it used to be that it would happen as people got older."

Young adults like Lopez are now at higher risk of having strokes. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that strokes can happen in 1 out of 5 adults 20 to 54 years of age. It used to be 1 in 8 back in the mid-1990s.

Lopez was aware he had high blood pressure but felt that taking medication would interfere with other aspects of his life, and he neglected to follow up on it. During his stroke, two-thirds of his brain was affected.

Four months since the stroke left him unable to walk and stand on his own, Lopez is on his way to recovery. He still has problems with coordination and has memory lapses and he urges people listen to their bodies and take care of them.

"Just because you're young and you think you have a good lifestyle, if you don't take the time to take care of your medical condition," he said. "There's a big chance that something like this can happen to you too."

Doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center's Barrow Neurological Institute outline some of the most common myths about strokes.

One is that strokes aren't preventable. Doctors said 80 percent of strokes can be prevented by a healthy lifestyle. Another myth is that strokes are painful. In Lopez's case, the only pain he had was a headache, but the symptoms he began with were the tingling sensation in his fingertips and numbness along his left side and blurred vision.

Doctors also recommended abstaining from smoking, as smoking is a large risk factor.

Another fact is that strokes are not rare. Statistics show that every 45 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke, and on average, one American dies from strokes every four minutes.

Drugs and alcohol increase the risk of stroke. Doctors believe substance abuse and excessive drinking are leading indicators among young adults. Even though genes do play a part in future health histories of adults, doctors believe strokes can be prevented by healthy lifestyles.

Another myth is that high blood pressure and cholesterol aren't conditions that can lead to serious health problems, such as strokes.

"Don't be naÔve and don't be stubborn," said Lopez. "Take one hour of your day, make an appointment and take control of your life."

Martha Maurer, News Editor

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