Those daily ‘brain farts’ may be sign you’ve suffered ‘silent strokes,’ study finds

TORONTO — That bout of unusual absentmindedness you notice happening more frequently may be more than just a symptom of stress or an everyday brain fart. A new study finds that adults who find themselves losing their train of thought or forgetting what it was they were doing (or about to do) may be showing earlier signs of having suffered a “silent stroke.”

These so-called silent strokes occur in people suffering from cerebral small vessel disease, according to researchers from the Baycrest Centre For Geriatric Care in Canada. The disease is one of the most common neurological disorders linked to aging, and occurs when the brain experiences changes or interruptions in blood flow in areas of the brain that are “silent,” or serve no essential purpose. Thus, an individual doesn’t even realize that he or she suffered the stroke as it happened.

Silent stroke
A diagram of a brain with cerebral small vessel disease, otherwise known as silent stroke. (Image courtesy Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute)

Still, a silent stroke can cause damage to the brain’s white matter, and can lead to attention issues and a greater likelihood of becoming easily distracted, researchers say. But sufferers can still go about their days normally, without any major threats to their executive functions or ability to organize and focus.

For the study, researchers scanned the brains of 54 adults ages 55 to 80 who possessed at least one risk factor for stroke. The authors looked for damage to the brain’s white matter, the telltale sign of cerebral small vessel disease. Participants also had their attention and executive functioning assessed.

“Our results indicate that in many cases of people who were at a higher risk of silent stroke and had one, they saw a notable difference in their ability to stay focused, even before symptoms became detectable through a neuropsychological test,” says Ayan Dey, lead author on the paper and a graduate student at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the University of Toronto, in a media release. “If a person feels this may be the case, concerns should be brought to a doctor, especially if the person has a health condition or lifestyle that puts them at a higher risk of stroke or heart disease.”

While silent strokes don’t affect a person’s speech or cause paralysis like the more traditional strokes we see, the condition is linked to vascular dementia and a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, along with other dementias. Doctors can recognize damage from silent stroke through MRI scans, usually after the damage has worsened.

Moving forward, the research team plans to continue examining brain activity and differences as well as behavioral differences among people who have suffered from silent strokes.

“The question that remains is whether overcoming these changes in the brain is a natural ability some people have or if this is something that can be built up over time,” says Dey. “If it’s something that can be developed, is it something we can train?”

Doctors say that vascular changes in the brain can be limited through regular exercise, a healthy diet, stress management, and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The study was published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging.