Women are twice as likely to die from stroke as they are breast cancer, and stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S.
However, a new survey of 2,000 U.S. women between the ages of 25 and 65, conducted in partnership with the National Stroke Association (NSA) and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), showed that women may be dramatically underestimating their risk of this medical emergency.
"Also known as a cerebrovascular accident or CVA, a stroke is a life-threatening event in which part of the brain does not get enough oxygen," explained Lauren Fredrickson, M.D., Director of Emergency Medicine at Salem Community Hospital. "There are two forms of stroke. The most common is an ischemic stroke, which refers to the blockage of a blood vessel supplying the brain. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when there is bleeding into or around the brain."
"Women are twice as likely to die from stroke as breast cancer," she added. "Yet, women in the survey believed breast cancer is much more prevalent than stroke. Furthermore, the survey revealed that 40 percent of women were only somewhat or not at all concerned about experiencing a stroke in their lifetime. The fact is, stroke knows no gender and can occur at any age. In fact, more than 25 percent of stroke victims are under the age of 65."
"Seven out of ten women who were surveyed also said they were not aware that they are more likely than men to have a stroke, and were only somewhat knowledgeable about the risk factors for stroke."
The on-line survey was conducted from March 16- April 4, 2010, and was designed to gauge women's knowledge regarding stroke risks, symptoms and their prevalence.
Symptoms of a Stroke
-Sudden numbness or weakness on one side of the face or facial drooping
-Sudden numbness or weakness in an arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
-Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
-Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
-Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
-Sudden severe headache with no known cause
"Only 27 percent of women who were surveyed could name more than two of the six primary stroke symptoms," Dr. Fredrickson said. "The results of this survey emphasize the fact that women frequently put the health of their other family members first, and often underestimate or ignore their own risks and warning signs of a serious health condition like stroke."
"The most significant factors for stroke are hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and cigarette smoking," Dr. Fredrickson advised. "Other risks include heavy alcohol consumption, high blood-cholesterol levels, illicit drug use and vascular abnormalities. Having more than one risk factor also increases a person's risk.
"In addition, people can help prevent a stroke by cutting back on the amount of salt and fat in their diet and by exercising regularly to prevent high blood pressure and atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, which are two major stroke risk factors."
Fortunately, the survey results indicated that educational efforts about understanding stroke and what to do if a person is experiencing a stroke may be having an impact. In the survey, 60 percent of women could identify what causes an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is clogged by a blood clot or other obstruction.
Because of this blockage, part of the brain does not receive the blood and oxygen it needs. Eighty-six percent of women knew to call 9-1-1 if they suspected that they or someone near them is experiencing a stroke.
"If you or someone you know experiences any of the symptoms of a stroke, it is imperative to call 9-1-1 so you receive immediate medical attention, even if the symptoms go away," said Angela Gardner, M.D., President of the American College of Emergency Physicians. "Time equals brain. For every minute the brain is deprived of oxygen, it may lose up to 1.9 million brain cells. If you are having even one of the symptoms of stroke, come to the emergency department to be evaluated or treated."
The National Stroke Association recommends the F.A.S.T. test as a quick screening toolto help identify stroke symptoms:
Face - Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms - Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech - Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Are the words slurred? Can they repeat the sentence correctly?
Time - If the person shows any of these symptoms, time is important. Call 911 or get to the hospital. Brain cells are dying.
"All women should become more aware of stroke symptoms, since a lack of awareness can literally mean the difference between life and death," Dr. Fredrickson concluded. "If you have a sudden onset of the worst headache of your life or another neurological symptom, get to a hospital immediately."
"A stroke should be accurately diagnosed in the emergency department to determine the appropriate treatment. Some stroke treatments have to be given within just several hours of the stroke's onset to achieve the best success, and time is of the essence."
Lauren Fredrickson, M.D., is a board certified Emergency Medicine physician and the Medical Director of Salem Community Hospital's Emergency Department.