Vera Kurnitzki-West watched her father Gunter slip into a fog after he suffered a stroke in 1998. Not only was the 79 year old trying to recover from the stroke, he was dealing with a slow and steady demise into dementia.
At the time it wasn’t obvious to Kurnitzki-West, but looking back, the red flags were obvious.
“He started to become very short-tempered, irritable, forgetful. He couldn’t do the things he could do before, he lost layers of his social etiquette, he was very aggressive toward caretakers,” she told Global News about the former artist and engineer.
“It was definitely dementia that had set in to the point where he had lost all of his faculties and regressed. He lost everything — I was watching him get stripped away of everything, his intellect, ability to communicate, he didn’t respond to anything. That was very difficult,” she said.
By the time Gunter died five years later in 2003, he was in a catatonic state while in around-the-clock care.
Kurnitzki-West’s mom, Ellen, died shortly after. She had also suffered from a stroke. And last year, in January 2015, Kurnitzki-West, 54, suffered from a brain hemorrhage from what she calls a perfect storm of family history, a head injury and mildly-elevated blood pressure.
Now doctors are warning that not only is she at risk of a second episode, she should also look out for symptoms of dementia.
There’s an “increasingly powerful” relationship between stroke and dementia, according to a new report released Thursday out of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
Covert strokes — what’s been dubbed as a silent stroke that may not have obvious symptoms — could be the culprit, too.
“Stroke and dementia need to be studied together because in some ways there are one and the same,” Dr. Andrew Demchuk, director of the Calgary Stroke program and spokesman for the foundation, said.
“Stroke causes brain cells to die and this can precipitate dementia or worsen pre-existing dementia. There are different causes of dementia, and research now shows that stroke is a major contributor,” Demchuk said.
Stroke happens when blood stops flowing to parts of the brain, causing cells to die. Having a stroke more than doubles your risk of developing dementia later on in life, the report warns.
Out of every 100 stroke patients without a past history of dementia, 16 are likely to develop dementia after their first or subsequent stroke.
One in three Canadians will encounter stroke, dementia or both.
There are similarities between the two, too: age is a risk factor for both and as the Canadian population ages, the numbers of people suffering from a stroke or getting a dementia diagnosis are slated to rise.
Covert strokes are trickier to measure. Small vessels become permanently blocked but there are no immediate signs or outward physical damage. They’re occurring in younger Canadians, too.
“About three per cent of Canadians in their 40s have evidence of a covert stroke. They can experience small strokes and they do not even realize it, and then it is too late as the damage is not reversible,” Dr. Eric Smith, a stroke neurologist and HSF spokesman said.
Kurnitzki-West is certain that’s what happened with her father. Gunter had likely dealt with a series of covert strokes that slowly chipped away at his health.
The Toronto woman is on a path to recovery: since her brain hemorrhage, she’s moved out of her wheelchair and onto her own two feet, with the help of a cane and a walker. She hopes to return to work in the fall or winter.
“There’s huge fatigue. You feel like everyday you ran a marathon as your brain is repairing itself. You try to regain normal life as much as you can,” she said.
She’s also keeping a watchful eye over her brain health. If she encounters bouts of forgetfulness, for example, she’ll touch base with her doctor, she said.
Her advice to fellow Canadians is to pay attention to their health and learn about stroke warning signs. Kurnitzki-West said that when her hemorrhage occurred, she knew right away what was happening: her speech slurred, she went numb on the whole left side of her body, and she couldn’t raise her arms above her shoulders.
Getting help right away is what saved her life, she said.
“I feel lucky to be alive but I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” she said.
Nine in 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for stroke and heart disease. Some risk factors can change, though. They include:
- Know and control your blood pressure
- Eat a healthy and balanced diet that consists of a variety of natural/whole and minimally processed foods
- Be physically active. Accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more
- Be smoke free
- Manage diabetes
- Limit alcohol. Women should limit themselves to no more than two drinks a day, to a weekly maximum of 10. Men should aim for three drinks a day, or a weekly maximum of 15
Some risk factors can’t be changed, such as previous history of a stroke, family history of stroke or blood vessel problems, old age, and sex (women, at menopause, tend to have a lower risk of stroke than men).
Read the full Heart and Stroke Foundation report.