The news that Delaware Atty. Gen. Beau Biden suffered a mild stroke today probably came as a surprise to many people, considering the son of vice president Joe Biden is relatively young (41), trim and in seemingly good health.
But strokes are not unheard-of in people that age, says Dr. David S. Liebeskind, associate director of the UCLA Stroke Center. "It doesn't surprise me at all," he said. "Overall the perception is that only older people have strokes, but we see a lot of people who have strokes at that age, even younger sometimes."
The cause of Biden's stroke isn't known yet, but Liebeskind said that a mild stroke could be caused by a number of things, including a tear in the wall of one of the major arteries leading to the brain, causing a blockage. That could be due to arterial structural abnormalities, or from stress put on the arteries caused by a sudden twisting movement. "Sometimes it can occur with trauma as severe as whiplash," he said, "or something like a tennis serve or a particular swimming movement or other sporting activities."
General stroke symptoms can include numbness or weakness on one side of the body, loss of speech, imbalance, trouble with speaking or speech loss, or a sudden severe headache.
A mild stroke can also be caused by a blood clot, which, Liebeskind said, can occur anywhere in the circulatory system, cutting off blood flow to the brain. A transient ischemic stroke, also called a mini-stroke, is the temporary blockage of an artery caused by a blood clot. A tendency to form blood clots, he added, can be something we're born with. "In many cases we're unaware of it." Infections or minor illnesses can cause inflammation, which can also lead to blood clots.
Another cause of stroke is a cerebral hemorrhage, when an artery in the brain bursts and fills the area with blood. Singer and reality show star Bret Michaels reportedly recently suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a specific type of bleeding stroke that happens between the tissues around the brain and the brain itself.
Some types of migraines may also lead to a stroke, said Dr. Patrick Lyden, chairman of the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Those who have classical migraines, he said, which include an aura and sometimes loss of vision or function on one side, may be at more risk for stroke than those who have common migraines, which typically cause pain only one side of the head and almost never include an aura.
A statement from the vice president's office said Biden is in stable condition, alert with complete motor and speech skills. But prognosis following a stroke depends on its cause, Lyden said. "First you think about the cause, then you think about the severity of the symptoms, then you think about how to treat it."
-- Jeannine Stein
Photo: Beau Biden at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty Images