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Normal People Have Abnormal Brain MRIs

A recent research study suggests that as many as 7% of adults over 45 have had a stroke without even realizing it. Researchers performed brain MRI scans of 2000 “normal” (asymptomatic) Dutch men and women between the ages of 45 and 96, and found that 7.2% of them (145 people) had evidence of an infarct (stroke), 1.8% (36 people) had small aneurysms, and 1.6% (32 people) had benign tumors (usually a small malformation of the blood supply to the brain).

Interestingly, they also found one person with a primary brain cancer, one person with a previously undiagnosed lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain, one person with a life-threatening subdural hematoma (brain bleed), and one person with an aneurysm large enough to require surgery. So altogether, they found 4 people out of 2000 who needed urgent medical intervention.

Although the authors of the article emphasized the point that many “normal” people have harmless brain abnormalities – I was a bit surprised by the fact that they found 4 asymptomatic people unaware of a ticking time bomb in their brains.

Keep in mind that the study was conducted on middle class Caucasian adults in the Netherlands – so we cannot generalize these findings to more diverse populations. But I do think it’s a bit of an eye-opener.

MRI scans are quite expensive (well over $1000 in most cases) and are therefore not offered to the general population as a screening test. But it does make you think about saving up for one. Your radiologist may find something unimportant, or she may find something that you hadn’t bargained for. Or maybe one day the technology will be inexpensive enough to offer as a screening test in a primary care setting. But that’s not going to happen any time soon.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at

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