Caring Currents

After a Stroke: What to Expect When Life Turns Upside Down

Last updated: Mar 03, 2010

Jamie as therapy dog
Image by normanack used under the creative commons attribution license.

When a stroke leaves someone you love changed, it's hard. This has been the experience of two close friends of mine, both of whom are trying to help their mothers cope with the after-effects of stroke.

One friend's mom has paralysis and palsy on one side, leaving this formerly feisty and independent woman fearful of falling and embarrassed to eat in public. The other friend's mom lost some of her speech; she can't remember words, and she's difficult to understand. An energetic and active community volunteer just a few months ago, she's become isolated and dependent.

I thought of these friends when I read about some startling research published this week showing that women who have a stroke and don't receive the clot-busting drug tPA have much worse outcomes than men whose stroke goes untreated. After following 2100 stroke patients for six months, the researchers found that 70 percent of men were in good shape, while only 58 percent of women were functioning well.

What was much more interesting, though, was the scientists' explanation for why this would be. They attributed the difference to two factors:

"¢ more elderly women are living without spouses or daily caregivers
post-stroke depression affects women more than men

When they looked at marital status, the researchers discovered that more than 30 percent of the women were widowed, leaving them without a spouse to see to their care and make sure they were getting rehabilitative services. Only 7 percent of the men were living without spouses as daily caregivers.

Somewhat discouraging news, but it made me dig further into the stroke studies, and I found one with a much more positive message: Stroke victims who take vitamin B3, also called niacin, grow new blood vessels and nerves in the brain and regain brain function. The study at Henry Ford Medical Center was an animal study, so it can't be considered conclusive. But doctors already know that niacin improves blood flow in the brain; that's why they have people with high cholesterol take it. I myself take niacin because my doctor explained that it would help raise my HDL, or "good" cholesterol, and protect against stroke.

So doesn't it make perfect sense that niacin could also help people recover after stroke?

For those caring for a family member who's had a stroke, this is actionable information - it's something we can do. We can also congratulate ourselves for being active, involved caregivers, since researchers in the first study concluded it was lack of caregiving that caused women who had strokes to do worse afterward.