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It’s time to take stroke seriously

Warning signs of stroke
Warning signs of stroke

Stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you’re with suddenly experiences any of these symptoms (remember, too, that stroke symptoms may come and go):

  • numbness or weakness on one side of the face or body, or in one arm or leg and not the other
  • profound confusion
  • inability to speak or hear
  • blindness or reduced vision in one or both eyes
  • trouble walking or standing
  • dizziness or loss of balance
  • a “thunderclap” headache—the worst you’ve ever had

Some strokes are preceded by ministrokes, called transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. They are very fast, milder versions of a full stroke—and a warning of a potential major stroke in the future. Like strokes, TIAs require immediate medical attention.

Are you one of the millions of women who downplay stroke as a “mostly male” health problem? If so, get ready for some sobering facts.

In 2004, women accounted for 61 percent of all stroke-related fatalities. The truth is, stroke claims more than twice as many lives as breast cancer. Worse, a woman’s risk of stroke increases significantly once she enters menopause, and it keeps rising as she gets older.

Stroke is a leading cause of physical disability in our country. For all these reasons, stroke is one illness that no woman should take lightly.

Striking suddenly

Stroke takes two forms. Ischemic stroke occurs when a clot shuts off an artery that supplies oxygen-rich blood to the brain. The result: brain damage caused by the death of millions of brain cells. Ischemic clots may form close to the brain, such as in the neck, or they may form farther away, near the heart or lungs.

The second type, a hemorrhagic stroke, occurs when a weakened blood vessel bursts, either inside the brain (intracerebral) or on its surface. Hemorrhaging blood drowns and kills pockets of cells in nearby brain tissue. Such strokes are uncommon but are often so severe they cause death.

Gambling with poor odds

In either event, stroke is the end result of cardiovascular disease (CVD), which over the years slowly narrows and weakens the arteries. Risk factors for stroke include:

  • Untreated hypertension. High blood pressure, the leading cause of intracerebral hemorrhage, increases your risk of stroke fourfold to sixfold.
  • Smoking. Smoking cigarettes increases your risk for ischemic stroke.
  • Diabetes. Having this disease raises your risk of stroke.
  • “Bad” blood. High blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol promote atherosclerosis—a buildup of plaque on arterial walls that impairs circulation. In addition, high levels of homocysteine, an amino acid derived from eating meat, can also damage blood vessels and lead to clots.
  • Obesity. Carrying excess weight, especially around your waist, raises your blood pressure and ups your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

These and other risk factors such as a family history of stroke, race (particularly African-American), poor diet, lack of exercise and having other heart problems like atrial fibrillation or congestive heart failure can stack the odds of a stroke against you.

Preventive steps

Of course, preventing a stroke is much wiser than risking one. To develop your defenses against this debilitating event, doctors say you should take these actions:

  • Stub it out. If you smoke, quit. It’s one of the most important health measures you can take to reduce stroke risk.
  • Take an exam. Have your blood pressure checked at least once every two years. If you can’t remember when you last had a physical, get one as soon as you can.
  • Change your diet for the better. What we eat has a direct connection to how well we fare against illness. If you’re not already doing so, increase your servings of heart-healthy fish, grains, fruits and vegetables and reduce fat and sodium.
  • Get moving. Regular exercise can help keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels within a healthy range. It also aids weight control, improves your mood and helps you sleep better.
  • Be woman-wise. Being female means you have several gender-specific risk factors for stroke. If you take birth-control pills or hormone-replacement therapy or if you suffer from migraine headaches or an autoimmune disorder, talk with your doctor about whether you are at increased risk.
  • Curb your alcohol intake. Because alcohol raises blood pressure, the American Stroke Association and many other health agencies urge women to limit alcohol consumption to one serving of beer, wine or liquor a day as compared to two servings for men.
  • Control your triglycerides. Some studies show high levels of blood triglycerides—a type of fat that supplies energy—can increase your stroke risk more than that of a man.

Striking suddenly

Gambling with poor odds

Preventive steps