A gender issue: Why more women die from stroke
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, and while everyone should always be aware of the warning signs, it is an opportune time for women to educate themselves.
In the United States, stroke is the third leading cause of death in women, according to the National Stroke Association. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among men. About 55,000 more women than men have a stroke each year and strokes kill twice as many women as breast cancer every year.
Women are affected more often because of a variety of factors:
- They’re more likely to experience depression, anxiety and stress – mental health conditions that raise the risk for stroke
- More women suffer migraines, which can increase stroke risk by 3-6 times
- Stroke risk increases during pregnancies due to natural changes in the body
- Birth control pills increase stroke risk
- Hormone Replacement Therapy used to relieve menopausal symptoms can increase stroke risk
There are also risk factors that women share with men:
- A family history of stroke
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Not exercising
A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted due to a block or ruptured blood vessel. The brain is very oxygen-dependent, so even a few minutes without oxygen-rich blood can cause brain damage.
“We often think of stroke as a medical problem that happens to other people,” says Dr. Steven Block, neurologist with Dean & St. Mary’s. “But strokes affect nearly 800,000 Americans and their families each year, and it can be incredibly taxing on everyone because family members often take on the responsibility of becoming caregivers.”
The key to treating and surviving stroke is quick medical intervention. An acronym to help you remember the symptoms is FAST.
- 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
But women may report symptoms that are different than the common indications. They include general weakness, nausea, vomiting, fainting, shortness of breath, or even hiccups.
“These unique symptoms can create problems. Since they are not often recognized as a stroke symptom, treatment can be delayed,” notes Dr. Block. “The most effective treatments are only available within a few hours of the first symptoms.”
If you notice anyone exhibiting the symptoms above, it is imperative to call 911 immediately. Do not attempt to drive the individual to the hospital because emergency medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment in the ambulance.
Over the last couple decades, Stroke Centers have helped improve the outcomes from stroke. Dean & St. Mary’s Stroke Center became the first certified Primary Stroke Center in south-central Wisconsin in 2007. It has been recertified by the Joint Commission numerous times, and currently holds a Silver Plus status, which indicates advanced levels of recognition for consistent compliance with quality measures.
"A certified stroke center allows us to rapidly evaluate and treat an evolving stroke quickly, creating a much better chance for a favorable outcome,” says Dr. Block. “Time is so critical, and we borrowed from the trauma center model where everyone knows their role. It works more efficiently, allowing us to reach our goal more often of having people functionally independent.”
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 doctor for an annual exam to evaluate and manage your stroke risk factors.
Dr. Steven Block is the medical director at the Dean & St. Mary’s Stroke Center. He accepts new patients. Call (608) 260-2900 for more information.