I’ve talked a lot about stroke on my show, both because strokes are often disabling and deadly and because most women don’t realize how at risk they really are. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in women, and more women have strokes every year than men. In spite of that, I find that many people think about stroke as a man’s disease and the symptoms they look for when assessing a stroke reflect the symptoms to watch for in men. Few people are even aware that women can have different symptoms.
This point was brought home to me this past week with the release of a survey out of Ohio that showed that only one in 10 women surveyed recognized some of the less common, female stroke symptoms as signs of stroke. I want to take some time to cover the signs and symptoms of stroke so that you can better recognize when you or a loved one might be in danger.
Who’s at risk for a stroke?
There are a number of risk factors that apply to both men and women that can increase the risk of stroke. These include:
- Having a family history of stroke.
- Having high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
- Being diabetic.
- Being a smoker.
- Not exercising or being overweight.
But on top of those risk factors, most women don’t realize that there is a subset of risk factors specific to women that can increase stroke risk. These include:
- Suffering from migraines that include and aura beforehand, something that is more common in women.
- Taking certain kinds of birth control pills or using hormone replacement therapy.
- Being pregnant, which changes blood pressure and heart function.
I don’t bring these up to say that you should stop taking your birth control or that you should avoid becoming pregnant. Those risks are mostly small compared with the general risks mentioned above. But I think it’s important to recognize that some aspects of being a woman can put you at higher risk, which is why knowing how to lower your risk and how to recognize the early signs of a stroke are incredibly important for women.
What symptoms should I look out for?
The most common stroke symptoms include the sudden appearance of:
- Numbness or weakness in the face, arms or legs, especially on one side of the body.
- Confusion, trouble speaking or trouble understanding.
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
- Trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
- Severe headache with no apparent cause.
Both women and men have these symptoms, but women can also have a variety of other symptoms that are less commonly seen. These include:
- Losing consciousness or fainting.
- General weakness rather than just specific weakness in one part of the body.
- Trouble breathing.
- Confusion, unresponsiveness or a feeling of disorientation.
- Sudden change in behavior.
- Feeling agitated.
- Feeling nauseous or vomiting.
- Sudden pain somewhere.
Looking at that list might seem alarming. After all, when was the last time you had a case of hiccups? Don’t worry; it probably wasn’t because you were having a stroke. The key thing to keep in mind is that alarm bells should start ringing when several symptoms appear together. Maybe you wouldn’t worry about hiccups if you feel completely fine otherwise, but what if you were also feeling weak and nauseous? A case of the hiccups in that case could tip you off to possible danger. No one symptom spells stroke, but two or more should trigger a cry for help.
What can I do to prevent a stroke?
There are two approaches to take. First, reduce your risk factors. Smoking, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure are major risk factors for having a stroke. Fortunately, they’re also factors you can do something about. Talk to you doctor about quitting smoking and get on a regular exercise regimen. Eating well will both help you to drop pounds and help you drop your blood pressure and cholesterol. These changes can have a big impact on your overall health and literally add years to your life.
Second, know what a stroke looks like. Carry my stroke symptoms wallet card with you and add the symptoms I mentioned above to it. That way, you’ll have the information handy whenever you need it. If you think someone might be having a stroke, act FAST:
- Face: Ask the person to smile and see if one side of the face droops.
- Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms and see if one side drifts downwards.
- Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase and see if their speech is slurred or strange.
- Time: Any of these signs could indicate a person is having a stroke. Call 911. If a person has other symptoms that make you strongly suspect a stroke, call 911 even if they don’t have problems with the above tasks. Remember, time is of the essence.