By Stephanie Mensh, Senior Analyst
October 29, 2014 is World Stroke Day and the launch of I am woman: Stroke affects me, a two-year, world-wide campaign sponsored by the World Stroke Organization (WSO) and supported by national organizations like the American Stroke Association (ASA). According to the WSO, women have a higher risk of stroke than men, a higher mortality rate from stroke than men, have worse outcomes from stroke than men, and often receive less care than men, despite responding equally well to care.
Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death, and a leading cause of disability. In the U.S., someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, resulting in 790,000 Americans having a new or recurrent stroke each year. Globally, that number is close to 15 million. The ASA estimates that Americans will pay about $73.7 billion in 2010 for stroke-related medical costs and disability.
Despite these numbers, stroke awareness is somewhat limited, it seems, until it happens to you or your immediate family. Stroke can occur suddenly at any age, among every race and class, whether you are a man or a woman. I learned all about stroke when my husband, Paul Berger, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke from a ruptured aneurysm at the young age of 36, while at the gym doing his usual exercises. Hemorrhagic strokes, blood flooding into the brain, account for about 15-20 percent of strokes, and tend to leave more serious, debilitating effects than the more common infarction or blockage-type strokes caused when a clot or constriction in a blood vessel blocks the flow of blood and oxygen into the brain.
Warning signs of stroke. Advocacy groups like the ASA and the National Stroke Association have summarized the warning signs into an easy to remember list, “FAST” to remind you to take fast action:
F: Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven?
A: Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S: Speech Difficulty – Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
T: Time to call 9-1-1 – If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you’ll know when the first symptoms appeared.
Other warning signs include:
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination.
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause.
Stroke risk factors. “Controllable” risk factors (through medical interventions or lifestyle choices) include high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, high cholesterol, diabetes, atherosclerosis, circulation problems, tobacco use and smoking, alcohol use, physical inactivity, and obesity. Uncontrollable risk factors include age, gender, race, family history and previous stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Many major risk factors occur more frequently in women, according to the WSO. As a result, one in five women is at risk for stroke, compared to one in six men. Women over the age of 85 have the highest stroke rates of any other demographic. Some stroke risk factors such as diabetes, migraines with visual aura, atrial fibrillation, depression, and hypertension occur more frequently in women, and many more stroke risk factors are specific to women, such as pregnancy, preeclampsia, use of birth control pills (especially in the case of women with high blood pressure), hormone replacement after menopause, hormone changes, and gestational diabetes.
Lifestyles to lower stroke risk. The good news is lifestyle changes can lower risk of stroke significantly. These five elements of a healthy lifestyle were shown to reduce risk of stroke by 54 percent, compared to those who didn’t follow these elements, according to a recent study published in the journal, Neurology: (1) healthy diet; (2) moderate alcohol consumption of three to nine drinks per week; (3) never smoking; (4) being physically active--walking or biking at least 40 minutes a day, plus one hour weekly of more vigorous exercise; and (5) maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI).
Stephanie Mensh is a Senior Analyst who has expertise in Medicaid, Medicare and health insurance reimbursement policies; supportive services for independent living; and housing programs for people with disabilities and chronic conditions. Read Stephanie’s Bio.