A stroke is when blood flow to part of the brain is cut off or heavily restricted and the starved brain cells begin to die.
In this manner, a stroke is like a heart attack of the brain. Although stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, about 80% of strokes are considered to be preventable.
This makes it important for people to understand how to prevent stroke and how to prevent stroke from reoccurring, since the risk becomes much higher after the first occurrence.
Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that although the phenomenon of a stroke and heart attack have a number of similarities, there are some very important differences beyond the organs affected. Learning how to prevent stroke or heart attack does not automatically translate into reducing the likelihood of the other condition. Please keep this in mind.
Types of Stroke
There are three types of stroke that can affect an elderly individual. Understanding the differences between these categories is the first step in learning how to prevent stroke.
Ischemia is when blood begins to clot in a manner that blocks arteries or otherwise impedes blood flow to a vital organ. This can happen due to fatty buildups or plaques in the blood vessels or due to scarring. Ischemic strokes are generally grouped into two types:
- Embolic: An embolic stroke is when a blood clot forms elsewhere in the body and ends up traveling through the bloodstream to the brain, where it becomes lodged and causes a stroke
- Thrombolic: A thrombolic stroke is when a clot forms in a blood vessel—called a “thrombus”—and ends up causing an arterial blockage that affects the brain.
In situations where a blood vessel becomes weakened, it may begin to leak blood into the surrounding area. Alternatively, an aneurysm (swollen blood vessel) may burst and cause a sudden and dangerous amount of bleeding into the brain.
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
A transient ischemic attack is not a “true” stroke and is sometimes described as a “mini-stroke”. TIA occurs when something like the narrowing of a blood vessel or low blood flow temporarily obstructs the passage of blood to the brain. However, blood flow in these cases gets restored on its own before any permanent damage can happen. Generally speaking, a TIA can last several minutes to several hours and will mimic stroke symptoms rather convincingly. TIA is still considered a medical emergency and is also a serious sign of being at risk for a true stroke (2). For all intents and purposes, how you prevent a mini stroke in the elderly is much the same as how you would prevent a normal stroke.
How to Prevent Stroke in Elderly Patients
As the saying goes, prevention is the best cure. There are several risk factors (4) that can make you more vulnerable to a stroke. Knowing what these are and how you can lower them is a key step in reducing your risk of suffering a stroke.
Eating a Healthy Diet
While not a direct method of reducing your risk, a healthy diet is good at promoting your overall well-being and reduces your vulnerability to multiple forms of chronic disease and acute conditions, including stroke. Limiting your intake of sodium, solid fats, refined grains, or excess sugar should be incorporated alongside things such as eating more vegetables and whole grains, or swapping out red meat for seafood more frequently.
Engaging in Physical Activity
If you’re looking for how to prevent stroke naturally, diet and exercise are the best ways to go. 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, can be enough to reduce your stroke risk.
Among its other unpleasant health effects, smoking doubles your risk of stroke due to how it increases clot formation and plaque buildups. The method you use, whether through patches or counseling or going cold-turkey, doesn’t matter as much as being able to kick the habit.
Managing Atrial Fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is a form of irregular heartbeat that is more common in people over 60 and is also one of the leading risk factors of stroke. It’s possible to have an abnormal rhythm and not realize it since the condition often occurs without any noticeable symptoms. Your doctor can run the necessary tests and exams to see if you have atrial fibrillation, and can work with you to manage the condition and reduce your risk.
High blood pressure is the leading cause of stroke. In hypertension, the heart is forced to pump harder, and this additional force can weaken blood vessels and make them more vulnerable to damage or leaks. A mixture of diet and medication can be used to better control blood pressure and reduce this vulnerability. Diet and medication to control cholesterol can also be of use.
Uncontrolled or poorly managed diabetes can cause prolonged periods of high blood sugar, which is capable of damaging blood vessels. This makes clots more likely to form and raises your risk of suffering a stroke. Proper monitoring of blood sugar levels, taking insulin when appropriate, and staying active are all possible ways of staying on top of the condition.
Symptoms of Stroke in the Elderly
Regrettably, it’s possible to suffer a stroke even while taking preventative measures. Though your overall risk may be lower, this potential needs to be acknowledged and accounted for. Knowing how to recognize stroke symptoms (3) can be integral for getting prompt medical attention, since symptoms sometimes appear up to several minutes before the full effects of the stroke are felt. Speed is of the essence in these matters, so the sooner symptoms are recognized and emergency help is contacted, the better.
The symptoms of a stroke are:
- Numbness in the face or limbs, often (but not always) on just one side of the body
- Sudden problems with vision in one or both eyes
- Sudden, severe headache
- Difficulty communicating, such as being unable to say specific words, sudden slurring, or an inability to speak in general
- Loss of coordination
It’s not entirely clear why, but women are known to sometimes show different symptoms in advance of a stroke than men. In addition to the above symptoms, women may experience:
- Sudden hiccups
- Sudden nausea
- General weakness
- Spontaneous chest pain
- Shortness of breath
Diagnosing a Stroke
If you have trouble remembering the primary signs of a stroke or are worried that someone else may be suffering from one, the FAST acronym can be of use.
- Face: Have the person try to smile and pay attention if one side of the face doesn’t move as well as the other.
- Arms: Have the person raise both of their arms and see if one doesn’t move as high as the other.
- Speech: Give the person a sentence and see if they can repeat it without slurring.
- Time: If you notice abnormalities during any of the above tests, these may be a sign of a stroke and you should get emergency help immediately.
Treatment for Stroke in the Elderly
Treatment for a stroke (5) involves doses of drugs meant to break up blood clots and possible surgical interventions to repair damaged blood vessels or remove clots directly. During this time, additional drugs may be administered to reduce pressure on the brain, lower hypertension, and prevent complications from the stroke such as seizures. Further procedures, such as angioplasty, may be performed afterward to reduce the risk of suffering a second stroke.
Prognosis and Survival Rate for Stroke in the Elderly
Stroke is fatal about 60% of the time in women and 40% in men. Ischemic strokes are more likely to be survivable than hemorrhagic strokes, but hemorrhagic survivors have an easier time regaining normal functions.
About 25% of stroke survivors suffer a small level of disability as result and 40% experience moderate-to-severe disabilities. The National Institute of Health has a scale that is used to establish the prognosis of stroke in the elderly by measuring 10 different factors:
- Field of vision
- Facial movement
- Motor function in the extremities
- Loss of senses
- Language problems
- Ability to speak, speak clearly, and/or use the correct words to express thoughts
Stroke recovery for the elderly is a multi-step approach that can involve speech or physical therapy to recover from any new disabilities along with preventative steps or procedures meant to lower the risk of further strokes. Any underlying conditions that may have exacerbated the vulnerability would likely be addressed as well.
Stroke is more common than many people realize and there are approximately 7 million stroke survivors in the United States. Although improvements in medical treatment have decreased the mortality rate since the year 2000, knowing how to prevent stroke is still important.