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'Mini Strokes' Linked to Lower Life Expectancy

"Mini strokes," with symptoms that last just a few minutes or hours, are well-recognized warning signs for potentially deadly larger strokes. Now new research confirms that they are associated with lower life expectancy.

Nov. 14, 2011 -- "Mini strokes," with symptoms that last just a few minutes or hours, are well-recognized warning signs for potentially deadly larger strokes. Now new research confirms that they are associated with a lower life expectancy.

Survival rates after mini strokes, known medically as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), were 20% lower than expected among study participants nine years later compared to the general population.

The findings highlight the fact that TIAs are serious events that should not be ignored, says stroke specialist and American Heart Association spokesman Philip Gorelick, MD. He directs the Center for Stroke Research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.

The study is published in the November issue of Stroke.

"TIAs are a warning and people should definitely heed the warning and seek diagnosis and treatment immediately," he tells WebMD.

TIA Symptoms

TIAs typically do not cause permanent brain damage and do not immediately lead to death.

Like strokes, symptoms can include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, often occurring on one side of the body.
  • Confusion or trouble speaking that also comes on suddenly.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.

These symptoms may go away in as little as a few minutes or last as long as 24 hours. About 40% of people who have them will go on to have an actual stroke, and half of these strokes occur within two days of the TIA, according to the National Stroke Association.

Within three months of having a TIA, about 10% to 15% of people will have an actual stroke.

Tracking Survival Rates

In the new study, researchers followed just over 22,000 mostly older adults living in New South Wales, Australia, who had been hospitalized with TIAs.

The researchers looked at records of TIA hospitalizations from July 2000 to June 2007.

Using death registry data up to the end of June 2009, the researchers compared death rates in the study population to those in the general population.

Five years after having the TIA, survival rates were 13% lower than would be expected in the general population, and nine years later survival rates were 20% lower than expected.

Having a TIA was a bigger indicator of early death for older patients than for younger ones, with the event having only a minimal effect on survival in patients younger than 50.

Study co-researcher Melina Gattellari, PhD, says this finding was a surprise because older people tend to have many health conditions that can lead to death.

Take TIAs Seriously

Gattellari says long-term survival could be increased if more people sought medical attention when experiencing symptoms of TIA and stroke and followed through with the treatments and recommendations of their health care providers.

"Because the symptoms come and go so quickly, people may not consider TIAs serious, so they may be less likely to stay on recommended treatments," she tells WebMD.

TIA-related testing may involve a neurological exam, imaging tests, blood tests, and other tests to rule out a major stroke, determine the cause of symptoms, and identify proper treatments, Gorelick says.

Gorelick says the chances of preventing a major stroke with the appropriate treatments following a TIA are excellent.

"In the U.S. we do a pretty good job of diagnosing and treating patients following TIAs," he says. "The message is simple. People who have these symptoms should take them seriously and seek diagnosis and treatment."

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