Healthy Aging Column – Strokes – Major Health Concern of Aging

Strokes kill more than 160,000 people each year and are the third leading cause of death, ranking behind heart disease and all forms of cancer. While strokes can occur at any age, the vast majority of stroke deaths occur in the elderly.

The American Heart Association reports that every 45 seconds someone in America has a stroke (about 700,000 people annually) and every three minutes someone dies of one. Stroke is the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States.

A stroke affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When this happens, the part of the brain affected cannot get the blood and oxygen that it needs and starts to die. Clots that block an artery cause ischemic strokes, accounting for 70 percent to 80 percent of all strokes.

For many, a warning sign of a person’s risk for stroke is when a TIA, or transient ischemic attack, occurs. This is a "mini" stroke that produces stroke-like symptoms but has no lasting damage. It occurs rapidly and lasts a very short time, so people often do not even realize it has happened.

TIAs occur when a blood clot temporarily clogs an artery and part of the brain doesn’t get all the blood it needs. The TIA is over when the body releases clot-dissolving enzymes and the artery re-opens fully. Unlike a stroke, there is no injury to the brain when a TIA is over.

Knowing whether a person has had TIA strokes can be important in predicting if a stroke will occur later – they are 10 times more likely to have a stroke than someone of the same age and sex who hasn’t had a TIA.

Of the people who’ve had one or more TIAs, more than a third of them will later have a stroke that will result in impaired vision, speech, movement, or even death. In about half of the cases, the stroke occurs within one year of the TIA incident.

The usual symptoms for a TIA are the same as for a stroke, only temporary. Symptoms include:

– Numbness or weakness of one side of the face, arm or leg.

– A severe headache that comes on quickly with no know cause.

– Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

– Confusion or trouble speaking or understanding.

– Trouble walking or experiencing dizziness and loss of balance.

The American Stroke Association has identified factors that increase the risk of stroke.  The more risk factors a person has, the greater the chance of having a stroke. While you can’t control some risk factors such as age, sex, gender or family heredity, you can control lifestyle or environment factors. Here are some facts on the risk factors:

– High blood pressure is the most important risk factor for stroke.

– The chance of having a stroke doubles for each decade of life after age 55.

– While the incidence of stroke is about equal for men and women, at all ages more women die of stroke.

– The risk of stroke is greater in people who have a close relative (grandparent, parent or sibling) who has had a stroke.

– Having Type II diabetes increases the risk of stroke four-fold.

– Cigarette smoking increases the risk of stroke. Nicotine and carbon monoxide damage the cardiovascular system. The use of oral contraceptives with cigarette smoking greatly increases the risk.

Guidelines for prevention of TIAs and other strokes are to control blood pressure, eat and drink in moderation, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and not smoke. By following  these guidelines as well as being aware of the early warning signs that indicate a stroke, you are more likely to maintain a heart-healthy life.

Additional information on Healthy Aging can be found on the Colorado State Cooperative Extension Web site at by going to Info Online, Consumer and Family, and selecting Healthy Aging.

by Luann Boyer, Family and Consumer Extension Agent

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Morgan County