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Reduce your risk of silent strokes

As seen on this MRI scan, a silent stroke
involves small spots of damage to areas of the brain that are not directly associated with functions such as vision or speech. Yet researchers are finding these strokes can affect memory.

Exercise, eat a healthy diet, and manage blood pressure and cholesterol to lower your odds.

When you think of a stroke, you probably picture obvious symptoms, such as sudden numbness on one side of the body and difficulty speaking. But there are also events known as silent strokes that occur without symptoms, yet have the potential to severely impair your memory and brain health.

Though the two types of strokes differ in some significant ways, they both share common causes, including high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. “The good news is that control of the same risk factors that contribute to overt strokes will help prevent silent strokes,” says Dr. Natalia Rost, director of Acute Stroke Services at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “The bad news is that sometimes people do not know they have these risk factors.”

What is a silent stroke?

In simplest terms, a stroke is a disruption of blood to brain tissue. A silent stroke is usually the result of a clot forming in a tiny artery supplying blood to a “silent” part of the brain, Dr. Rost explains. These areas don’t control vital functions, such as speech or walking, which is why the interruption of blood flow doesn’t result in obvious symptoms. But a person can experience multiple silent strokes, which can start to reveal themselves through memory lapses and mood changes.

“We’ve learned that the cumulative effect of these ‘silent’ injuries manifests itself with impairment in thinking skills, functional decline, trouble walking, and late-life depression,” Dr. Rost says. “Most importantly, silent strokes are also very strongly linked to the risk of future symptomatic strokes.”

Because silent strokes don’t have clear-cut symptoms, you may find out “by accident” that you’ve had one or more of these events. If you get a MRI or CT scan of the brain for any reason, it may reveal evidence of brain tissue damage from a silent stroke.

Lower your risks

To reduce your chances of having a silent stroke—or an obvious one—you should do your best to manage a few key conditions, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries. A blood clot can form on the plaque’s surface, or a piece of plaque can break off and block an artery.

Dr. Rost adds that some risk factors tend to go undetected longer. Diabetes, for example, can raise the risk of stroke. But unless you have your blood sugar or hemoglobin A1c levels checked routinely, you may go a long time without knowing you have diabetes.

She also notes that in younger stroke patients (ages 55 and under) smoking can be an especially strong indicator of white matter brain disease. The white matter of the brain carries the “wires” that connect one nerve cell with another. Disease of white matter often adversely affects functions like planning and problem-solving.

Dr. Rost suggests you work with your doctor as a team to reduce your chances of having a silent stroke. “Regular contact with a primary care doctor, frequent blood pressure checks, and healthy lifestyle habits, including regular exercise, getting enough sleep, no smoking, and a healthy diet, would go a long way toward lowering your risks of a silent stroke,” she says. 

Types of strokes

There are two basic types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes, the most common, occur when a blood clot or other debris blocks an artery within the brain or one that supplies blood to the brain, such as one of the carotid arteries in the neck. A hemorrhagic stroke is much less common: it happens when a weakened blood vessel ruptures—either within the brain or in the area between the brain and skull—and blood seeps into surrounding brain tissue.

Among the most common symptoms of stroke are

  • sudden weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body

  • blurred vision in one or both eyes

  • trouble speaking or understanding
    what others are saying

  • loss of balance, dizziness, and difficulty walking

  • a sudden and severe headache.

If these symptoms appear, call 911 or have someone do so, rather than try to drive yourself to the hospital. And if possible, try to take note of the exact time when symptoms first appeared. In patients having an ischemic stroke, a clot-busting drug can sometimes be administered to minimize damage. But the drug must be given within three hours after symptoms begin.

Posted by: Dr.Health

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