What Women Don't Know About Stroke Could Kill Them

It's the third-highest cause of death among women in the U.S.
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Dr. Diana Greene-Chandos, neurologist and director of neuroscience critical care at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, contributed this column to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Too few women know the female-specific risks and symptoms of a stroke, and it can have devastating consequences. I've seen it for years in my practice as a neurologist, and a recent national survey only underscores the same troubling truth.

The survey, commissioned and released by our hospital, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, went to 1,000 women nationwide and found that only 11 percent could correctly identify pregnancy, lupus, migraine headaches, oral contraception or hormone replacement therapy as female-specific risks for stroke.html.

That's an alarming statistic given the vast number of women who have a connection to one or more of those risk factors. Unfortunately, many women think of stroke as a "men's health issue," but it is the third-highest cause of death among females in the United States, and claims more than 80,000 women each year, according to the National Stroke Association.

Spotting the symptoms

The symptoms of a stroke can be different for women than men, though few females in the survey were able to pinpoint some of those differences. Only 10 percent of women, for example, knew that females can experience hiccups and atypical chest pain during a stroke.

Awareness of particular early warning signs is important during a stroke because many women might assume they have indigestion and delay seeking medical attention. This can have serious consequences. Only within the first three hours after the onset of stroke is emergency treatment with clot-busting drugs a viable option. Women often miss this window because they don't know what early warning signs to watch for.

The signs of stroke in women include:

  • Hiccups
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Body numbness, with one side being more numb than the other

Some symptoms, however, are the same for both women and men. These include:

  • Facial droop or uneven smile
  • Weakness that involves the arm and leg on the same side of the body
  • Slurred speech or difficulty speaking or understanding

If you experience any of these symptoms, don’t delay treatment. Call 911 immediately.

How women heal from stroke

The survey also found that nearly half of all women don't know the challenges females can face after a stroke. Things like nerve damage and paralysis can cause issues with swallowing, but many women who survive a stroke also suffer from depression, which often deters them from the idea of attending rehab as early and as often as they should.

Doctors have a long way to go to educate women about stroke, including the risks and symptoms unique to them. All of us, men and women, need to know that smoking, a lack of exercise and blood pressure above 140/90 can raise our risk of stroke.

Hemoglobin A1C levels above 5.7 can also raise the likelihood of stroke. When no other risk factors are present, so do LDL (bad cholesterol) levels greater than 100. For those with diabetes, the risks are greater and those individuals will need to be more aggressive. When coupled with diabetes, any A1C level above 7.0 and an LDL cholesterol level greater than 70 drive up the risk of stroke.

There are some studies that suggest lowering LDL too much may increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, but this is not a guideline nor is there a target number. When there are no additional risk factors present, an LDL level greater than 100 increases a person’s risk of stroke.

As our society ages, we expect the number of strokes will continue to climb. It's imperative that all of us, especially women, better understand the risks and symptoms so rapid treatment can reduce complications and improve survival.

To assess your own risk for stroke, check out the Wexner Medical Center's stroke assessment test.

Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.

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