Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability

Strokes are serious and can be deadly. Being familiar with the signs of stroke and responding quickly can save your older adult’s life or reduce their chance of developing major disabilities.

Stroke is the 5th leading cause of death in the United States, affecting about 800,000 people each year. It also causes more serious long-term disabilities than any other disease.

We explain what a stroke is, common stroke survivor disabilities, a handy shortcut to recognize the top signs of stroke, additional signs of stroke, and what to do if you notice signs of a stroke.

What is a stroke?

Think of a stroke as a “brain attack.” It happens when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off. That deprives brain cells of oxygen and those cells begin to die.

When brain cells die during a stroke, abilities controlled by that area of the brain are lost, like memory and muscle control.

There are 5 main types of stroke:

  1. Ischemic stroke (clots) – accounts for 87% of all strokes, happens when a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain is blocked
  2. Hemorrhagic stroke (bleeds) – happens when a weakened blood vessel in the brain ruptures, typically caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure
  3. Transient ischemic attack (TIA) – called a “mini stroke” caused by a serious temporary blood clot, it’s a warning stroke and should be taken seriously
  4. Cryptogenic stroke – in some cases, despite testing, the cause of a stroke cannot be determined and is called a “cryptogenic stroke”
  5. Brain stem stroke – can have complex symptoms and can be difficult to diagnose, severe brain stem strokes can cause locked-in syndrome where survivors can’t speak or move below the neck

signs of stroke

Stroke survivor disabilities

25% of stroke survivors end up with a minor disability and 40% have moderate-to-severe disabilities.

They’re often left with physical weakness, speech impairment, and unusual muscle tightness.

These impairments can affect the ability to communicate, walk, eat independently, bathe, dress, and independently complete other activities of daily life.

F.A.S.T. is a shortcut to remember signs of stroke

Use these initials to remember the key signs of stroke and how to respond.

F = Face drooping on one side. Ask your senior to smile – is it uneven?

A = Is one Arm weak or numb? Ask them to raise both arms – is one arm weak?

S = Speech problems like slurring, inability to speak, being incoherent. Ask them to repeat a simple sentence like “The sky is blue” as a quick test.

T = Time to call 911. If you see any of these signs, even if the symptoms don’t last, call 911 right away and get to the hospital ASAP. Check the time so you can tell EMTs and doctors when the symptoms started.

Additional signs of stroke

Sudden symptoms like these are also signs of stroke:

  • Numbness or weakness of the leg, arm or face
  • Confusion or trouble understanding
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes  
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Severe headache with no known cause
  • Brief loss of consciousness

What to do if you suspect a stroke

If you notice any of the signs of stroke, call 911 immediately.

Speed is very important. The faster your senior gets to the hospital for treatment, the better their chances for survival and recovery.

If the stroke symptoms pass quickly, your older adult might have had a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is caused by a brief blockage of blood flow to the brain.

Don’t ignore a TIA, it’s a warning sign of future, more serious strokes. Early treatment and lifestyle changes can prevent a major or fatal stroke.