When it comes to women's health issues, breast cancer might garner most of the attention, but there's another important and preventable disease facing women of all ages: stroke.
“If you ask 10 of your female friends what’s more deadly for women, they’d likely guess breast cancer over stroke,” says Carolyn D. Brockington, MD, Director of The Stroke Center at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals. “The truth is, stroke is a significant health risk for two reasons: many women don’t know their risk factors and may not recognize the subtle warning signs.”
The good news is, simply learning the risk factors and symptoms of stroke can empower women to prevent and treat it before they risk serious complications.
Why risk in women is different
Stroke is an injury to the brain from lack of blood. Much like a heart attack involves a disruption in blood flow to the heart, a stroke involves a disruption in blood flow to the brain. It’s sometimes referred to as a “brain attack.” The most common type of stroke (ischemic) occurs when a blood vessel becomes suddenly blocked and interrupts blood flow to the brain.
A few unique factors place women at higher risk for stroke:
- Hormones in birth control pills and in hormone replacement therapies (which contain progestin and estrogen) for menopause relief may raise the risk for developing blood clots.
- Some specific types of migraines can increase women’s stroke risk, and most Americans who suffer from migraines are women.
- Excess weight around the midsection (a waist of greater than 32.5 inches) and high triglyceride levels (above 128 mg/L) boost risk for many chronic diseases, including stroke.
- Pregnancy increases blood volume and blood pressure, placing increased stress on the heart. Post-delivery hormone fluctuations may also increase risk.
In addition, people who smoke, have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes or a family history of stroke are at increased risk for stroke. And, although your risk increases as you get older, anyone can suffer from stroke.
“Many strokes can be prevented if women identify and modify certain risk factors," Dr. Brockington says. “It’s not enough to know you have risk factors – you have to actively change them through lifestyle or medication.”
Symptoms of stroke
The subtle signs of stroke can often go unnoticed or are ignored until a serious attack occurs. Symptoms may include a sudden onset of:
- Slurring or difficulty speaking
- Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Loss of vision
- Loss of balance
- Acute onset of a severe headache
“Ignoring these symptoms can cause irreversible brain damage, so get to the emergency room promptly for an immediate evaluation,” Dr. Brockington urges.
Why timing is everything
“We often say ‘time is brain’ when we talk about stroke,” Dr. Brockington says. The more time oxygen-rich blood is restricted from the brain, the higher the chance the patient will suffer permanent brain damage.
It’s crucial to get to the emergency room promptly. Most of the effective treatments for stroke can only be given to eligible patients within the first hours of the onset of symptoms. Patients presenting with stroke symptoms at one of the Continuum Hospitals’ emergency rooms may receive a clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), which dissolves the clot causing the blockage. Re-establishing blood flow to the brain is the first step in stroke treatment, and there is a lot of work that follows. Learn more about other timely treatments and rehab services at The Stroke Center.
“We have the ability to change the course of a person’s life if they come to the emergency room promptly for an evaluation and rapid treatment,” Dr. Brockington says.