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Mini Strokes In Seniors

This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Martin Duggan in 2021

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

A mini-stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) causes stroke-like symptoms when a part of the brain experiences a temporary lack of blood flow. 

A mini-stroke is quite different from a stroke, as its symptoms usually resolve within 24 hours. The temporary lack of blood flow usually does not last more than 5 minutes. However, the symptoms of mini-strokes and strokes are very similar, which can make distinguishing them a challenge. The symptoms may be mild for a mini-stroke, compelling people to look past them in the belief that it is a mere sign of aging. However, mini-strokes can often lead to a stroke, which makes early treatment that much more important, as it can potentially prevent another stroke from taking place. 

Staying informed about the risk factors for mini-strokes and their symptoms is an important part of caring for an elderly person in your life. It will help you take the right action at the right time which can minimize the damage caused by the mini-stroke. In this article, we will go over the causes and symptoms of mini-strokes in detail, so you know what to look out for in case of an emergency.

Symptoms Of Mini Strokes In Elderly

The symptoms of mini-strokes in the elderly are very similar to those of a stroke. While they are not the same as a stroke, mini strokes also require immediate medical attention. 

The mini-stroke itself usually lasts for a few minutes, with symptoms disappearing within an hour. At times they can last for up to 24 hours. Mini-stroke symptoms usually include:

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of the body (dependent upon the location of a blood clot in the brain)
  • Confusion 
  • Slurred speech, trouble talking or understanding 
  • Vision issues. This can involve temporary blindness in one eye. 
  • Tingling sensation
  • Passing out
  • Loss of balance and coordination
  • Dizziness 
  • Severe headaches

To determine what is happening in the case of an emergency, the acronym FAST is often used to check for the signs of a mini-stroke. 

F – Face

Ask the person to smile and check if it is lopsided or if any side of the mouth is drooping. 

A – Arm

Check if they are having difficulties moving one of their arms and if any of their arms are drooping downward. The person may also feel weakness in their legs which can cause stumbling or poor coordination. 

S – Speech 

Check if the person is able to speak clearly without slurring, or if they are having difficulties repeating a simple phrase. If their words sound strange, garbled, or slurred then this could be a sign of a mini-stroke. 

T – Time

The last step of the acronym is to realize that time is of the essence, and seeking emergency care immediately is essential.  

These steps do not replace a diagnosis from a medical professional. It is vital to be evaluated at a TIA clinic or emergency department for a thorough and reliable understanding of what has occurred with your loved one. Symptoms of TIA can resemble those of meningitis, multiple sclerosis, another type of stroke or fainting due to low blood pressure. A medical professional is needed to make the distinctions and ascertain exactly what the issue is so that there is no misdiagnosis and so no symptoms are dismissed or downplayed. 

Furthermore, while it is often believed that mini-strokes cannot cause brain injury or disability, new research has shown that people who have suffered from mini-strokes can have tiny dot-like lesions in the brain which is referred to as “white matter disease”. These can accumulate and lead to serious issues of cognition and coordination that interfere with daily tasks. 

If your loved one lives alone and is believed to be at risk for a mini-stroke due to family history or a condition like diabetes, it may be worth looking into medical alert systems that involve devices like medical alert watches. These systems can be used by your loved one to call for help quickly if they are experiencing stroke symptoms. 

What Causes Mini Strokes In Elderly?

Mini-strokes occur when there is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain. In some cases, symptoms may last for only a few minutes. Blood clots are usually the reason for ministrokes. Fatty deposits that contain cholesterol can build up and create plaques in an artery that can also temporarily block or decrease blood flow to the brain. This narrowing of the arteries due to the buildup of fatty deposits is also called atherosclerosis. 

There are risk factors that can lead to the buildup or generally increase your risk for mini-strokes. Some of these factors cannot be controlled, like a family history of strokes, while some are in your control. 

Here are some of the risk factors for mini-strokes:

  • High blood pressure or hypertension
  • Diabetes, which can increase the severity of plaque buildup
  • High cholesterol or blood sugar 
  • High homocysteine levels. This is an amino acid, which in high levels can cause arteries to thicken and scar, making clots more likely. 
  • Heart disease. Cardiovascular diseases include heart defects or infections. 
  • Carotid artery disease. This disease causes clogging of the blood vessels in the neck that lead to the brain. 
  • Peripheral artery disease. This disease causes clogging of the blood vessels that carry blood to the arms and legs. 
  • Obesity 
  • Age. Elderly people are more at risk for strokes or mini-strokes. 
  • A family history of strokes
  • Atrial fibrillation, which is an irregular, often rapid heartbeat. 
  • Sickle cell disease is an inherited disorder that leads to blood cells carrying less oxygen. This can make blood cells get stuck in artery walls and hinder blood flow to the brain. 
  • An air bubble in the bloodstream

Certain lifestyle behaviors can also increase the risk for mini-strokes. These include:

  • Smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor nutrition, or eating a diet that is high in unhealthy fats and salt
  • Alcohol consumption 

If someone has had a mini-stroke before, this can also increase their risk of having another mini-stroke later on. 

A mini-stroke can itself act as a warning sign that an ischemic stroke may occur soon, making it very important to seek medical attention immediately, even if the symptoms go away in a few minutes. 

How Common Are Mini Strokes in Elderly People?

Mini-strokes are more likely to occur in elderly people than in younger adults. After the age of 55, the risk of mini-stroke increases. Men have a slightly higher risk but as women age, their risk also increases. 


An elderly person may stumble while walking, suddenly may not be able to find the right words, or suddenly feel dizzy which can be dismissed as a part of aging. However, these can also be signs that the person suffered from a mini-stroke. That is why noticing these signs, and not taking them lightly is crucial to possibly preventing a more severe stroke. 

The majority of strokes occur within 48 hours of the mini-stroke, which means emergency care must be sought out within that time. 1 in 3 people who have a mini-stroke will have a stroke later on. 

Multiple Mini Strokes In Elderly

Multiple mini-strokes in elderly people is an even greater sign of a stroke in the near future which can be severe. 

Multiple mini-strokes can lead to the development of vascular dementia in the elderly. This dementia is one of the most common forms of dementia and is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. When a series of strokes occur, it can greatly impact the blood flow to the brain and build up damage over time. This can affect areas of the brain that may result in early symptoms of dementia, like trouble with memory or confusion. 

Not everyone who has suffered from a stroke will develop vascular dementia or be at risk for it. The severity or frequency of the stroke, plays a role, along with genetic factors. Dementia can also be a risk factor for stroke, intertwining the two conditions. 

Mini-strokes, especially if they happen more than once can cause problems of cognition, judgment, memory, and emotion as brain cells suffer from reduced blood flow and oxygen. People may even feel depressed. There is no way to tell the extent of the damage of a mini-stroke with absolute certainty without being evaluated in a hospital or clinic. 

Conclusion

Ministrokes are serious events that may not cause permanent brain damage but can act as a warning for strokes or other conditions like dementia in the near future. As the symptoms may not be as prominent as a severe stroke, they may be brushed off as signs of aging. This is why many people who suffer from a mini-stroke may not get the help they need to protect their health. Taking action immediately may prevent a stroke from occurring and can potentially save a life. 

Sources:

  1. Ministroke vs. regular stroke: What’s the difference?, Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
  2. What is a Mini Stroke?, Penn Medicine, www.pennmedicine.org
  3. Transient ischemic attack (TIA), Mayo Clinic, www.mayoclinic.org
  4. Don’t be fooled by TIA symptoms, Harvard Health Publishing, www.health.harvard.edu
  5. The major impact of ministrokes, Harvard Health Publishing, www.health.harvard.edu
  6. Stroke, National Institute on Aging, www.nia.nih.gov

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