Increasing false positive diagnoses may lead to overestimation of stroke incidence, particularly in the young: a cross-sectional study

Abhinav J. Appukutty, Lesli E. Skolarus, Mellanie V. Springer, William J. Meurer, James F. Burke*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: Stroke incidence is reportedly increasing in younger populations, although the reasons for this are not clear. We explored possible reasons by quantifying trends in neurologically focused emergency department (ED) visits, classification of stroke vs. TIA, and imaging use. Methods: We performed a retrospective, serial, cross-sectional study using the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey to examine time trends in age-stratified primary reasons for visit, stroke/TIA diagnoses, and MRI utilization from 1995 to 2000 and 2005–2015. Results: Five million eight hundred thousand ED visits with a primary diagnosis of stroke (CI 5.3 M–6.4 M) were represented in the data. The incidence of neurologically focused reason for visits (Neuro RFVs) increased over time in both the young and in older adults (young: + 111 Neuro RFVs/100,000 population/year, CI + 94 − + 130; older adults: + 70 Neuro RFVs/100,000 population/year, CI + 34 − + 108). The proportion of combined stroke and TIA diagnoses decreased over time amongst older adults with a Neuro RFV (OR 0.95 per year, p < 0.01, CI 0.94–0.96) but did not change in the young (OR 1.00 per year, p = 0.88, CI 0.95–1.04). Within the stroke/TIA population, no changes in the proportion of stroke or TIA were identified. MRI utilization rates amongst patients with a Neuro RFV increased for both age groups. Conclusions: We found, but did not anticipate, increased incidence of neurologically focused ED visits in both age groups. Given the lower pre-test probability of a stroke in younger adults, this suggests that false positive stroke diagnoses may be increasing and may be increasing more rapidly in the young than in older adults.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number152
JournalBMC Neurology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2021


  • Diagnosis
  • Epidemiology
  • False positive
  • Stroke
  • Stroke in the young

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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