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Over 90% of strokes occur in the elderly: what are the risk factors?

Every five minutes, someone in the UK has a stroke. Even though strokes can happen to anyone at any time of life, most strokes occur in elderly people. Of the 130,000 people who have strokes in England and Wales each year, only 10,000 occur in people under retirement age.

Stroke Awareness Day recently took place (10th May 2011). It is designed to raise awareness of the signs, symptoms and risks factors of strokes, and to raise awareness of what should be done if a person experiences a stroke.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is a brain attack, which occurs suddenly and has an immediate affect on the body. During a stroke, the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. Blood carries essential nutrients and oxygen to the brain, and when this supply is cut off the brain cells are damaged or destroyed.

Depending on what part(s) of the brain are damaged by the stroke, almost any bodily or mental function can be affected.

What are the risk factors for elderly people?

A stroke can happen at any time and many people are unaware that they are even at risk. Some of the risk factors for a stroke cannot be helped, such as being over the age of 65, or coming from a family that has high incidence of strokes. Before the age of 75, men have a higher risk of a stroke than women. It’s also the case that people of South Asian or African Caribbean descent have a higher risk of stroke than people from other ethnic backgrounds.

However there are several lifestyle factors that elderly people and their live in carers can manage to reduce the risk of a stroke, such as:

  • Not smoking
  • Drinking only in moderation
  • Taking regular exercise
  • Eating a healthy diet

Some pre-existing conditions can heighten the risk of a stroke, including: high blood pressure (hypertension), atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), diabetes and high cholesterol. However, these can be managed with medication and lifestyle improvements. If an elderly person has a live in carer, they can liaise with the GP to make sure these conditions are kept under control, and the risk of stroke is reduced as far as possible. In cases where an elderly person has already experienced a stroke, they will need to be supported by a carer who is experienced in stroke rehabilitation.

Spotting the signs of a stroke and acting FAST

Anyone who is involved in any aspect of elderly care needs to be able to recognise the symptoms of a stroke. An elderly person who has had a stroke requires urgent medical attention: the sooner they get to hospital, the better their chances of survival.

If you are considering employing a live in carer or any kind of home care for your elderly relative, it is important to ask all prospective home care companies whether they train their live in carers to spot the signs of a stroke, which include:

  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of the body (signs of this may be a drooping arm, leg or lower eyelid, or a dribbling mouth)
  • Slurred speech or difficulty finding words or understanding speech
  • Sudden blurred vision or loss of sight
  • Confusion or unsteadiness
  • A sudden, severe headache.

The Stroke Association recommends that carers of elderly people use the FAST test if they suspect a stroke:

  • Facial weakness: Can the person smile? Has their mouth or an eye drooped?
  • Arm weakness: Can the person raise both arms?
  • Speech problems: Can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
  • Time to call 999.