Strokes in the Elderly
A sad reality for many Americans is the fact that strokes play a very real role in their quality of life. Each year, more than 800,000 fall victim to this medical event, the fifth leading cause of death in the United States with one person dying every four minutes. Indeed, only heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and accidents prove more deadly. Strokes do not discriminate based on age, sex or race, though more women have strokes than men. Also, African Americans are at twice the risk for stroke compared to whites.
What is a Stroke?
We’ll keep this simple: A stroke occurs when oxygen-carrying blood vessels in the brain burst or become blocked. Once the oxygen is cut off, brain cells begin to die, causing permanent damage.
Strokes are a medical emergency that occurs when the blood supply is somehow interrupted to the brain. Elderly people who suffer from poor sleep patterns, and who wake frequently, are especially susceptible to developing hardened blood vessels that can impair the movement of blood to the brain.
According to the American Stroke Association,1 you can quickly identify common stroke symptoms by remembering the acronym “F.A.S.T.” Below is a breakdown of what each letter stands for:
- Face Drooping: One side of the person’s face looks either drooped or numb, creating a lopsided appearance when they try to smile.
- Arm Weakness: The individual has a weak or numb arm. If the person can’t raise both arms without one drifting downward, this may be a symptom.
- Speech: The person’s speech is slurred, they can’t speak, or it’s difficult to understand what they’re saying.
- Time to Call 9-1-1: Call 9-1-1 right away if the person shows any of the above symptoms, even if they go away over time.
The American Stroke Association notes that there are a few additional symptoms to look out for, including sudden:
- Numbness, especially on one side of the body
- Trouble seeing
- Difficulty walking or loss of balance
- Severe headache
Effects of Strokes
Right-hemisphere Strokes – They affect the left side of the body and often causes paralysis to that side, vision problems, and memory loss.
Left-hemisphere Strokes – These strokes occur on the left side of the brain but affect the right side of the body causing paralysis, speech/language problems, memory loss and possibly creating a slow behavioral style.
Cerebellar Strokes – “can cause abnormal reflexes of the head and torso, coordination and balance problems, dizziness, nausea and vomiting,” says the National Stroke Association.
Brain Stem Strokes – devastate the body because the brain stem controls breathing rate, blood pressure, swallowing, hearing, speech, and heartbeat.
So, what are the different types of strokes that people suffer from and how should you respond when they strike?
Types of Strokes
Ischemic strokes account for 85% of all strokes and are caused by narrow arteries that severely reduce the flow of blood to the brain. Ischemic strokes are often caused by blot clots that form either in the arteries leading to the brain, or develop in other blood vessels prior to entering the blood stream and head towards the brain. Clots are formed from fatty deposits in the blood, known as plaque, and can be treated with blood thinning medication to help alleviate the problem.
Hemorrhagic strokes develop when arteries located in the brain begin to leak or bleed into the brain. This leakage, in turn, drains into the brain and places damaging pressure on the brain cells. Burst blood vessels spills blood over the surface of the brain before filling the space between your grey matter and the skull. Once burst, patients must get surgery to repair the burst vessel and drain the pooled blood. Ruptures typically occur causing medical conditions like hypertension, blood thinning medication, trauma, and aneurysms, which is a weakness found in the blood vessel walls.
Transient Ischemic Attacks
Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIA) are probably better known by the more popular term, mini-strokes. Like ischemic strokes, TIAs result from restrictions to your blood flow, but the effects are only temporary. Additionally, these events are triggered by clots or other debris breaking free before making it to the blood vessels of the brain. Transient Ischemic Attacks, although milder than other forms of strokes are equally deadly. Indeed, according to the CDC, TIAs should be viewed as a warning owing to the alarming statistic that upwards of a third of al TIA sufferers will go on to experience a major stroke within a year of that warning event. Prompt medical care is critical to ascertain any damage to the brain cells in the aftermath of a mini-stroke.
Even with these dark statistics, 80% of strokes are preventable. We’ll look at four ways to lower your risk for stroke.
4 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk
#1: Avoid Excess Sodium – High blood pressure is a major risk. Eat too much salt and you increase your blood pressure and your risk for stroke. The USDA recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. One teaspoon of table salt has 2,325 mg of salt. The American Heart Association is more cautious. It recommends 1,500 mg, particularly for those over 51 and those with hypertension.
A recent University of Miami study found that “individuals who consumed more than 4,000 mg of sodium per day had more than twice the risk of stroke compared to those who kept their daily consumption to less than 1,500 mg.” Beware of packaged snacks, baked goods, frozen entrees, condiments, fried foods and canned soups. Chicken noodle soup has 1,106 mg. Spaghetti sauce (1 cup) has 1,206 mg. Read the labels for sodium (per serving) and look for other sources of sodium including monosodium glutamate and sodium nitrate. Look for low sodium products, reduced sodium. Eating fresh, homemade foods will also reduce your sodium intake.
#2: Lay Off the Diet Soda – In the same University of Miami study, researchers found that “those who drank diet soda every day had a 61% higher risk of vascular events [strokes] than those who did no soda drinking.” The researchers suggested one or two sodas a week is fine. If you have a habit of drinking diet soda daily, replace it with a seltzer, tea or water.
#3: Lower Your Fatty Food Intake – This is an oldie but goody and for good reason. The worst fat offender and the one to lower in your life is trans fat. This is primarily a man-made concoction (some trans fat occurs naturally) that companies use in their foods to keep them fresher longer. It’s also a major contributing culprit to heart disease, cancer, obesity, and of course, stroke.
The Women’s Health Initiative, a major study of women over 50 found that eating a lot of trans fat put them at a 44% higher risk for stroke compared to those who ate the least. The study of over 87,000 women found that “there were 288 strokes in the group of women who consumed the most fat each day (95 grams) versus 249 strokes in the group eating the least fat (25 grams).” The American Heart Association recommends fat be 25 to 35% of total calories and trans fat to less than 1%. So if you need 2,000 calories a day, your trans fat should be no more than 2 grams.
On food labels, trans fat is listed as “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oil. The “good” fats are monounsaturated (olive, peanut, and canola oils) and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, and fish. Foods high in trans fat include margarine, packaged foods, soups, fast food, frozen food, cookies, crackers, baked goods, and breakfast cereal. Basically, most foods that are processed and put on the shelf in the supermarket. Remember, they need a shelf life.
#4: Exercise – Feel better. Look better. Live longer. What’s not to like about exercise? On top of all this, you’ll lower your risk for stroke. One recent Columbia University study “found that moderate-to-heavy exercisers were 40% less likely to have suffered a silent stroke than the non-exercisers.” Silent strokes often go unnoticed and symptoms can include memory loss, mobility problems, and greater risk for future strokes.
Your exercise doesn’t have to involve gym membership or any special gadgets or equipment. The American Stroke Association recommends going “on a brisk walk, take the stairs and do whatever you can to make your life more active. Get at least 30 minutes of activity on most of all days.”
The great thing about these four ways to lower your stroke risk is that they don’t involve huge lifestyle changes. You can still indulge in the occasional diet soda or basket of fries. Just do it in moderation. Be aware of what you’re putting in your mouth and your body.
Not only will you lower your stroke risk with these steps, but you’ll also lower your risk for other killers like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. For tips on other ways to take care of yourself, read our Aging Well article. You can also read about assisted living for those who have suffered a stroke here.