Everyone should be aware of the warning signs of stroke. In the United States, stroke is the fourth leading cause of death among men and the third leading cause of death in women, according to the American Stroke Association.
“In fact, about 55,000 more women than men have a stroke each year and strokes kill twice as many women as breast cancer every year,” according to Nathan Larsen, MD, St. Agnes Hospital Emergency Department & EMS medical director.
A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted due to a blocked or ruptured blood vessel. The brain is very oxygen-dependent, so even a few minutes without oxygen-rich blood can cause brain damage and bring on telltale stroke symptoms.
Classic symptoms include sudden weakness; paralysis or numbness in the face, arms or legs; trouble speaking or understanding speech; vision disturbances; and sudden mental status changes, such as confusion or memory loss.
Some risk factors are the same for men and women:
- a family history of stroke
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- being overweight
- not exercising
Other risks are unique to women:
- taking birth control pills
- being pregnant; stroke risk increases during a normal pregnancy due to natural changes in the body such as increased blood pressure and stress on the heart
- using Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), a combined hormone therapy of progestin and estrogen, to relieve menopausal symptoms
- having a thick waist and high triglyceride (blood fat) level; post-menopausal women with a waist size larger than 35.2 inches and a triglyceride level higher than 128 milligrams per liter may have a five-fold increased risk for stroke
- being a migraine headache sufferer; migraines can increase a woman's stroke risk three to six times, and most Americans who suffer migraines are women
The key to treating and surviving stroke is quick medical intervention.
“If you notice anyone exhibiting the symptoms above, it is imperative to call 911 immediately,” says Dr. Larsen. “Do not attempt to drive the individual to the hospital because emergency medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment in the ambulance en route to the nearest emergency room.”
An acronym to help you remember this information is FAST - Act FAST for Stroke!
- Face: Facial droop, uneven smile
- Arm: Arm numbness, arm weakness
- Speech: Slurred speech, difficult to understand
- Time: Call 911 and get to the hospital immediately
Strokes caused by a blocked blood vessel can be treated with medicines that dissolve clots, but the medicine must be administered as soon as possible to maximize its effectiveness.
“Once at the hospital, a patient may have a procedure to further open the blood vessel by delivering clot-busting medication directly to the blockage or removing the clot through a catheter,” says Dr. Larsen.
Reducing stroke risk is largely a lifestyle issue. Regular physical activity, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and managing blood pressure and cholesterol are among the most important things individuals can do to help prevent stroke.
“It’s most important to see your primary care provider for an annual exam to evaluate and manage for your stroke risk factors,” Dr. Larsen explains.