It is possible to have a stroke and not even know that you, or a loved one had it. This is called a silent stroke. There are also no real signs to look out for as symptoms are very subtle and often mistaken for signs of aging.
Professor Pamela Naidoo, a registered clinical psychologist and public health specialist, explains that a silent cerebral infarction (SCI) or a “silent stroke” happens when the blood supply to the brain is suddenly cut off, depriving the brain of oxygen and damaging the brain cells”.
Is a silent stroke dangerous?
A silent stroke is not life threatening, but does have a cumulative effect on brain health and your physical and mental abilities. If you have had several silent strokes, you may begin noticing neurological symptoms, including trouble remembering things or concentrating.
“People who’ve had recurrent silent strokes can suffer permanent brain damage which can lead to cognitive impairment and dementia, with a severe impact on memory,” Naidoo adds.
According to the American Stroke Association, silent strokes also increase your risk of having a symptomatic stroke in the future.
How do I know if I’ve had a silent stroke?
Most people usually only find out that they’ve had a silent stroke when they have a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or a CT (computerised tomography) scan where the image will show white spots or lesions where the brain cells have stopped functioning. That is how doctors will know you had a silent stroke.
Unlike events such as a heart attack when there are obvious signs of discomfort or pain, the signs and symptoms of a silent stroke may be subtle and can often be mistaken for signs of aging. These may include the following:
- Sudden lack of balance;
- Frequent falls;
- Loss of basic muscle movement (including bladder);
- Memory loss;
- Changes in mood;
- Decreased ability to think.
- Blood clots;
- High blood pressure;
- Narrowed arteries;
- High cholesterol;
- Sedentary lifestyle.
What can you do to limit your risk?
“While it is hard to spot a silent stroke and even harder to restore areas of the brain affected by the stroke, it is easier to keep one from happening in the first place”, says Naidoo
She has the following advice:
- Limit your salt intake to less than 1 teaspoon from all sources a day because a high salt intake is linked to high blood pressure.
- Cut down on unhealthy fats like saturated and trans fats which can raise cholesterol levels. These can be found in foods such as fatty and processed meats, chicken skin, butter, fast food and deep-fried foods.
- Choose foods high in omega 3 fats especially naturally oily fish such as sardines, pilchards and salmon. Omega 3 fats help to reduce blood pressure and risk of stroke. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa recommends fatty fish should be eaten at least twice a week.
- Remember to look out for the Heart Mark on foods to help you choose healthier options.
- Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, which can be spread over the week however you like. For example, 30 minutes five days per week.
Should I go to the doctor if I think I had a silent stroke?
“A stroke is a dangerous medical event and if you are experiencing any of the symptoms of a stroke, you should get immediate medical attention,” says Naidoo.
More about the expert:
Professor Pamela Naidoo is a registered clinical psychologist (MA, Clin Psych) and holds a masters degree in public health, as well as a doctorate in philosophy (behavioural medicine). She has 29 years experience in the health sector across non-communicable and communicable diseases. Learn more about Professor Pamela Naidoo here.