Whilst it’s not totally out of the question for migraine to develop as you get older, it’s not that common either. Migraine sufferers often experience their first attack in their teens or early twenties, although the majority of sufferers tend to be in their thirties or forties. According to the Migraine Trust, 90% of people have their first headache before they reach age forty.
With women experiencing migraine more often than men in all age groups, the percentage of female patients drops in comparison with men as women get older. By the time they’re in their sixties and hormones are no longer upsetting the body’s balance, the migraine frequency either drops off or stops altogether. So for most people getting older is good news, as far as their migraines are concerned. But what about those people who experience migraine pain for the first time in their fifties, sixties or beyond?
Because it’s relatively uncommon, doctors are wary about diagnosing migraine for the first time in older patients. Headache pain can often be associated with--and caused by--other health issues, so doctors will typically perform a series of tests to rule out those conditions that can produce migraine-like symptoms before making the diagnosis.
With Age Comes ChangeUnfortunately, getting older is something none of us can avoid, and with increased age comes increased risk of failing health. Some of the conditions that may be associated with migraine pain, or affect treatment for existing migraine sufferers, include:
- High blood pressure
- Hardening of arteries
- Heart disease
And just to further complicate matters, developing a secondary health condition can alter the triggers for migraine. On the bright side, treating co-existing conditions can also have a positive effect on your headaches, reducing their severity or frequency.
Transient Migraine AccompanimentsThe good news for migraine sufferers is that you’re not more at risk from a stroke as you get older. Research has shown that those patients with migraine who are aged around 40 are more likely to suffer a stroke than those over 70. However, occasionally older people will develop migraine aura-like symptoms that are nothing to do with migraine at all. The types of aura-like symptoms may include:
- Sensitivity to light
- Visual changes
- Other sensory changes
- Weakness in the arms or legs
- Numbness or tingling in arms or legs
- Hearing loss
- Speech disturbances
It’s possible that older people who experience these migraine-like symptoms are in fact experiencing small strokes, known as transient ischemic attacks. Your doctor will work to rule out this possibility (and arrange suitable treatment) before diagnosing migraine as the cause.
Hypnic HeadacheThis is a rare form of headache that typically strikes at night, waking up sufferers with sudden, throbbing pain that can last up to an hour. It’s not the same as a cluster headache, and has none of the symptoms commonly associated with migraine such as nausea or sensitivity to noise or light. This type of headache usually affects people over fifty, and is also more common in female patients than in men.
Temporal ArteritisThis potentially serious condition can cause blindness if it’s not treated, but can be successfully treated with steroids. It causes arteries in the temples to swell, with associated tenderness and redness in the temple area. Headache on one or both sides of the head are a common symptom. A blood test can confirm the condition, after which appropriate treatment will stop the pain, although treatment may be needed for some time.
Migraine and DepressionResearch has already established a number of links between migraine and depression, although it’s unclear whether depression causes migraine or whether the strain of living with migraine is the cause of depression.
A study undertaken in Sweden and published in 2002, found that women over 60 who had experienced severe depression in the past were more likely to continue with migraine into their senior years. Sudden lifestyle changes, such as retirement following a busy career, can lead to migraine-like tension headaches even though the stress of the workplace has been left behind. It may be possible that treatment for depression is needed more than painkillers for migraine.
Other Causes of Headache in Older People
Something as simple as ill-fitting dentures can cause referred pain in the head and jaw, while side effects from drugs taken to treat other conditions are also a common cause of headache. the point is, diagnosing migraine in older people is not as straightforward as you might think.
If you’ve developed severe, migraine-like headaches in later life, it’s important you see your doctor for a proper evaluation rather than self-medicating because you assume it’s ‘just a migraine’. It might be a migraine, but it might also be caused by a different condition that needs professional diagnosis and appropriate treatment.