The symptoms of a stroke are sometimes obvious, like numbness or weakness on one side of the face, trouble speaking, difficulty walking, and vision problems. Some strokes, though, pass completely unnoticed. But even these can have a significant and lasting effect on memory, reports the June 2012 issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.
These so-called silent strokes create pinpoints of dead cells in the brain. The damaged areas are smaller than with a traditional stroke, and often don’t affect areas of the brain associated with movement or speech.
During a typical ischemic stroke, a blood clot blocks a blood vessel that feeds part of the brain. Without a steady supply of blood, cells in that area malfunction and may die. Symptoms that appear reflect the functions that were controlled by the affected part of the brain. A hemorrhagic stroke caused by a burst blood vessel does the same thing.
During a silent stroke, the interruption in blood flow occurs in part of the brain that doesn’t control any vital functions. Although it doesn’t cause any obvious symptoms—most people who’ve had a silent stroke have no idea it occurred—the damage does show up on an MRI or CT scan.
Silent strokes could interrupt the flow of information in the brain needed for memory, especially if several of these strokes occur over time (which is the most common scenario). Damage from silent strokes can accumulate, leading to more and more memory problems.
Is there anything a woman can do when faced with a stroke that has no symptoms, and that can only be found on an MRI or CT scan? “I think that it should make people aware that it’s imperative to manage risk factors,” says Karen Furie, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Stroke Service. This means:
controlling blood pressure and diabetes
keeping cholesterol levels in check
aiming for a healthy weight
managing atrial fibrillation
If you are experiencing signs of memory loss, don’t dismiss it as a normal part of aging. See your doctor for testing to make sure the issue isn’t a silent stroke.