In 2012, 6.7 million people around the world suffered a stroke so powerful it killed them, according to the World Health Organization, making it the second most common cause of death globally. Many people survive a stroke, with varying degrees of recovery, but brain damage is often permanent. Most people who experience stroke are 65 or older but strokes can strike at any age, even during infancy. Data from the American Heart Association / American Stroke Association indicates one in five women (20%) will have a stroke during her lifetime.
Doctors usually describe strokes as cerebrovascular accidents (CVAs) or cerebrovascular insults (CVIs). Some people call them brain attacks. Hippocrates, thought of as the "Father of Medicine" by medical historians, called them apoplexy (Greek for “struck down by violence”). By any name, a stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted.
Ischemic and Hemorrhagic Stroke
In broad terms, strokes are categorized by the two major causes of them:
Ischemic — a blood vessel supplying the brain becomes blocked by a clot, plaque build-up, or other debris in the bloodstream
Hemorrhagic — a tear or other breach of the blood vessel causes blood to escape the vessel and pool in the brain or the tissue surrounding it
Women at Greater Risk
Women are more likely than men to have a stroke. Women are also at greater risk of death by stroke. In 2010 in the United States, 77,109 women experienced fatal strokes but only 52,367 men did. Almost 800,000 strokes occur in the US every year.
Several factors related to the female reproductive system cause women’s increased risk of stroke: oral contraceptives, pregnancy, preeclampsia, menopause, and hormone replacement therapy.
Women are more likely than men to experience migraines with aura, a factor associated with strokes. Smokers who experience these migraines have an added risk for stroke.
After age 75, women are four times more likely than men to develop atrial fibrillation (A-fib); this heart condition increases stroke risk.
Stroke Prevention and Lifestyle
It’s easier to limit one’s risk of stroke than recover from one. People of all ages who maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet (Mediterranean-style diet is most effective for stroke prevention), and get adequate physical exercise on a regular basis are less likely to have a stroke than their more sedentary or overweight counterparts.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, diabetes, and heart disease increase stroke risk. Pregnant women are at increased risk of developing these conditions, making it all the more important to maintain a healthy weight, eat wisely, and exercise regularly during pregnancy to minimize risk for these chronic conditions and the strokes they can cause.
Smoking dramatically increases the risk for stroke but excessive alcohol consumption and drug use (especially amphetamines and cocaine) do, too. A diet rich in processed and red meats also contributes to increased risk.
When someone is having a stroke, every minute matters. Check for these symptoms and act FAST if stroke is suspected:
F — Face: Is it drooping? Lop-sided? Can the person smile?
A — Arms: Can both arms be raised with equal ease and to the same height?
S — Speech: Look for slurred speech, gibberish, or nonsense words and phrases.
T — Time: There isn’t any. If these symptoms are evident, call 911 immediately.
A stroke is always a medical emergency. The sooner a stroke patient gets medical care, the more likely brain damage will be less severe.
- ePublications: Stroke fact sheet. WomensHealth.gov. Office of Women’s Health / US Department of Health and Human Services. 16 Jul. 2012. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
- Women Face Higher Risk of Stroke. American Heart Association / American Stroke Association. American Heart Association, Inc. n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.