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Women Often Unaware of Stroke Risk

Even though she was a practicing nurse at the time, Louise
Toomey did not recognize what was happening when she had her stroke seven years
ago. Luckily, her husband did.

"We were in a restaurant and I had a really bad migraine," she tells
WebMD. "I had spots in front of my eyes when I tried to read the menu. Then
my husband noticed a little droop on one side of my face and he said to the
waitress, 'Forget about ordering, call 911."

Even though Toomey had a family history of cardiovascular disease and was
overweight -- two big risk factors for stroke -- she says she did not consider
herself to be at high risk when she had her stroke at age 58.

"It was completely out of the blue," she says. "I knew I was at
risk for heart attack , but didn't really think much about stroke."

Women at Risk for Stroke

Stroke is a leading killer of women, but a new survey reveals that, like
Toomey, many of the most vulnerable women don't understand the extent of their

Researchers surveyed just over 200 women between the ages of 50 and 73 in an
effort to gauge their knowledge of stroke signs and symptoms and their own
individual risk. Most of the women were white, and many were of higher income
and well educated.

The survey findings were published in a special women-focused issue of the
American Heart Association (AHA) journal Stroke.

The women in the survey were all patients from the University of Connecticut
Cardiology Center. All of them had at least one major risk factor for stroke,
including hypertension , high cholesterol , diabetes, and an irregular heart
rhythm (atrial fibrillation ).

But the survey made it clear that many women did not associate their own
health conditions with an increased risk for stroke.

The survey shows that:

  • Only seven of 37 women (19%) with irregular heart rhythm and 11 of 71 (15%)
    with known heart disease identified these conditions as risk factors for

  • Just 3% of the women surveyed correctly identified irregular heart rhythm
    as a stroke risk factor; 16% identified heart disease and 36% identified
    diabetes as risk factors.

  • Two-thirds of the women considered their health to be good or excellent;
    about 70% said they rarely or never worried about stroke.

"It was surprising to me how many of these women who were in this
high-risk clinic, with identified cardiovascular disease, didn't recognize very
important risk factors for stroke," researcher Louise McCullough, MD, PhD,
tells WebMD.

Identifying Stroke Risk Factors

Roughly half of the women who responded to the survey correctly identified
lack of exercise and high cholesterol as stroke risk factors, and even higher
numbers identified being overweight, smoking , and high blood pressure as risk

But on average they were able to identify less than three out of the
following six classic warning signs of stroke:

  • Weakness or numbness

  • Sudden vision changes

  • Loss of balance or dizziness

  • Headache

  • Confusion

  • Sudden speech problems

"The perception has largely been that stroke is a disease of older
men," Richard C. Becker, MD, of the Duke University Medical Center
Cardiovascular Thrombosis Center, tells WebMD. "Women tend to have strokes
at older ages, but their strokes also tend to be bigger and more

McCullough says men are more likely to consider themselves at risk for
stroke than women, in part because education campaigns have traditionally
targeted men.

"Men worry about heart attack and stroke and women worry about breast
cancer, because breast cancer awareness campaigns have been o successful,"
she says. "But far more women will die from stroke than breast cancer or
any cancer."

Early Treatment Saves Lives

Getting women to recognize their stroke risk is critical because delaying
treatment can be deadly. Clot-busting drugs , which save lives and lessen stroke
damage, can only be given within the first few hours after symptoms begin.

Because she sought treatment so quickly, Toomey was treated with a clot

"It saved my life, but I was still left paralyzed on my left side,"
she says.

Last year the AHA, in collaboration with other health groups, launched a
campaign designed to raise awareness about stroke symptoms called "Give Me
5 for Stroke."

The campaign urges people to call 911 immediately if the following symptoms
occur suddenly:

  • Walk -- Is their balance off?

  • Talk -- Is their speech slurred or face droopy?

  • Reach -- Is one side weak or numb?

  • See -- Is their vision all or partially lost?

  • Feel -- Is their headache severe?

"We have found that those who are at the greatest risk are those who are
least aware," Massachusetts General Hospital vice chairman of neurology and
AHA spokesman Lee H. Schwamm, MD, tells WebMD. "That is why it is so
important to get this message out there to everyone."

By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas
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