Older persons have fewer headaches than younger ones. The prevalence of headaches at different ages in women and men, respectively, is as follows: 21 to 34 years, 92% and 74%; 55 to 74 years, 66% and 53%; and after age 75, 55% and 22%. Although 90% of headaches in younger patients are of the primary type, only 66% of headaches in the elderly are primary.
There is a decreasing prevalence of migraine with older age. Past age 70, only 5% of women and 2% of men still have migraine. There are many causes of new-onset headaches in the elderly, some of which can be particularly worrisome. The risk of serious secondary disorders in people ages 65 and older is 10 times higher than in younger people.
Although painful and troublesome, most headaches are minor and can be easily treated with aspirin or another pain reliever. (Do not use aspirin in anyone under age 19 because it may increase the risk for Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal disease.) But if your headaches are severe, recur frequently, or are accompanied by other symptoms, you need to see a health care provider.
Headaches are categorized according to their underlying causes. Common types of headaches include:
Late-life migraine accompaniments are transient visual, sensory, motor, or behavioral neurologic manifestations that are similar or identical to migraine aura. Headache is associated with only 50% of cases and may be mild. These accompaniments occur more often in men than in women. From most to least common, migraine accompaniments consist of visual symptoms such as transient blindness, homonymous hemianopsia (loss of vision on one side of one’s visual field), and blurring of vision; paresthesias (numbness, tingling, pins-and-needles sensation), or a heavy feeling of an extremity); brain stem and cerebellar dysfunction such as ataxia (clumsiness), hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in ears), vertigo (sense of room spinning), and syncope (loss of consciousness); and disturbances of speech, such as dysarthria (slurred speech) or aphasia (loss of ability to speak).
Other causes of transient cerebral ischemia should be considered, especially when the patient is seen after the first episode or if the case has unusual aspects. The usual diagnostic evaluation for transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) or seizures is performed.
Features that help distinguish migraine accompaniments from TIAs include a gradual buildup of sensory symptoms; a march of sensory paresthesias; serial progression from one accompaniment to another; longer duration (90% of TIAs last for less than 15 minutes); and multiple stereotypical episodes.