Older people poorly understand most of the important warning signs of stroke and factors that increase risk for this medical emergency, researchers from Dublin, Ireland, have found.

Among 2033 older men and women, fewer than half knew that dizziness, numbness, weakness, and headache are common warning signs of stroke, report Dr. Anne Hickey, of Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and colleagues.

Just 54 percent listed slurred speech as an indicator of stroke, the researchers report in the online journal BMC Geriatrics.

When asked to list the most common risk factors for stroke, about three-quarters of the men and women accurately listed high blood pressure. By contrast, 40 percent or fewer knew high cholesterol and smoking also increase stroke risk. Only about 10 percent knew diabetes and alcohol use are also risk factors for stroke.

These findings highlight the significant gaps in elders' understanding of early stroke warning signs and risk factors, Hickey and colleagues report. "As such, many older adults may not recognize early symptoms of stroke in themselves or others," they warn. Thus, they may lose "vital time" in getting help.

On average, the study sample was 74 years old and 57 percent female. Overall, 25 percent of the men and women had a history of heart disease and 6 percent reported a prior stroke.

Another 36 and 17 percent were past and current smokers, respectively, and this group was more likely to identify smoking as a stroke risk factor than never smokers.

However, consistent with the findings of other investigators, this study revealed the generally poor understanding elders have regarding factors leading to or indicative of stroke, Hickey and colleagues note.

Since effective stroke care requires rapid identification and medical intervention, Hickey's group suggests the need for substantially improved public education with regard to stroke prevention