You may have a sudden, severe headache, feel weak or numb on one side of your face or body, have trouble speaking or understanding, or experience confusion and/or difficulty with your vision or motor coordination. If any of these symptoms occur, you may be having a stroke, which is what occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked, causing brain cells to die.
While stroke kills almost the same number of men each year as prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s disease combined, stroke is becoming an increasing problem for American females. It causes twice as many deaths as breast cancer and kills about 55,000 more women than men annually.
While it’s clear to see how stroke rates differ between men and women, did you know that risk factors can vary as well? We spoke to Shavonne Williams, stroke program coordinator at Texas Health Dallas, who says raising awareness about stroke risk factors, then taking steps to control them, is paramount to saving lives, no matter the gender.
One main controllable factor is high blood pressure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in three men and women with high blood pressure are unaware because it does not usually cause symptoms.
Although both genders are affected, Williams notes that women have an increased risk over men due to hormones and stress rates.
“High blood pressure in pregnancy and some types of birth control medicines increase risk for stroke,” Williams adds. “And women are more likely to experience stress than men, which also puts them at greater risk.”
Alcohol consumption and smoking also contribute to an increased risk of stroke, due to smoking’s damaging effects on veins and alcohol’s tendency to increase blood pressure. While smoking and alcohol consumption are not confined to one gender, men are almost two times more likely to binge drink than women and are more likely to smoke than women.
Another risk factor that stands out is the occurrence of diabetes. Diabetes can damage veins and blood vessels, particularly in the brain, leading to a stroke. Nationally, diabetes affects more men than women. The same holds true in Texas, where diabetes affects 11 percent of women and almost 13 percent of men.
Most of the risk factors we’ve touched on are referred to as “common modifiable factors,” or factors you have the ability to control or change. Other controllable risk factors include high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity, depression and diet.
Making an annual trip to your doctor’s office can help identify any red flags and facilitate conversation and a plan with your physician to address modifiable risk factors. But making that trip can prove tougher for men. According to the CDC, men are half as likely as women to go to the doctor over a two-year period — and twice as likely to never have visited a physician or health care professional, meaning risk factors can go undetected and uncontrolled.
While men may be less likely to visit their physician every year, women are less likely to request or receive care as rapidly as men after a stroke, due to symptoms that are atypical and not as recognizable.
The symptoms listed at the beginning of this article are typical representations of how stroke presents in men, but a female having a stroke may also experience the following symptoms:
- Loss of consciousness
- Overall weakness
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sudden behavioral change and/or agitation
- Nausea or vomiting
If you are or someone around you is having symptoms of a stroke, call 911 immediately, as proper medical attention can help prevent long-term effects and death. As many as 85 percent of strokes are ischemic, meaning they are caused by a blood clot. If a person arrives at a medical facility and receives medication to dissolve the clot within three hours, it could very well save his or her life.
Gender aside, Williams offers several tips to improve overall health and reduce stroke risk.
“I encourage everyone to have routine doctor visits, choose healthier foods, control stress and find ways to include at least 30 minutes of activity on most days,” she advises. “Make sure other health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, are controlled. If you are a smoker, talk to your health care provider about programs to assist with smoking cessation.”