Stroke and women

Stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer each year. In fact, stroke is the fourth leading cause of death for women.1 Stroke also kills more women than men each year. A stroke can leave you permanently disabled. But many strokes are preventable and treatable. Every woman can take steps to prevent stroke by knowing her risk factors and making healthy changes.

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What is stroke?

A stroke is sometimes called a "brain attack." Stroke happens when blood flow to a part of the brain stops or is blocked by a blood clot or plaque, and brain cells begin to die.

What are the different types of stroke?

There are two types of stroke:

  • Stroke caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain (ischemic [ih-SKEE-mik] stroke). This is the most common type of stroke. This type of stroke happens most often when an artery is clogged with plaque (atherosclerosis) or a blood clot.
  • Stroke caused by bleeding into the brain (hemorrhagic [hem-uh-RAJ-ik] stroke). This type of stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, and blood bleeds into the brain. This type of stroke can be caused by an aneurysm, which is a thin or weak spot in an artery that can burst.

Both types of stroke can cause brain cells to die. Depending on which part of the brain the stroke affects, you may have problems with your speech, movement, balance, vision, or memory.

If you think you are having a stroke, call 911.

What is a "mini-stroke"?

A "mini-stroke" is also called a transient ischemic attack (TIA, pronounced "T-I-A"). A TIA happens when, for a short time, less blood than normal gets to the brain. You may have some stroke symptoms, or you may not notice any symptoms.

A TIA usually lasts only a few minutes, although it can last up to several hours. Many people do not even know they have had a stroke. A TIA can be a warning sign of a full stroke in the future, or you can have another mini-stroke at a later time.

If you think you are having any type of stroke, call 911.

What are the effects of stroke?

How stroke affects you depends on:

  • The type of stroke
  • The area of the brain where the stroke happened
  • The amount of brain injury

A mild stroke can cause little or no brain damage. A major stroke can cause severe brain damage and even death. Some effects of stroke may improve with time and rehabilitation.

Top and side views of the brain, with the brain stem, cerebellum, and left and right hemispheres labeled.A stroke can happen in different parts of the brain. The brain is divided into four main parts:

  • The right hemisphere (or half)
  • The left hemisphere (or half)
  • The cerebellum, which controls balance and coordination
  • The brain stem, which controls all of our body's functions that we don't think about, such as heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, or digestion.

A stroke in the right half of the brain can cause:

  • Problems moving the left side of your body
  • Problems judging distances. You may misjudge distances and fall. Or you might not be able to guide your hands to pick something up.
  • Impaired judgment and behavior. You may misjudge your ability to do things. You may also do things you would not normally do, such as leave your house without getting fully dressed.
  • Short-term memory loss. You may be able to remember events from 30 years ago, but not how to get to the place where you work today.

A stroke in the left half of the brain can cause:

  • Problems moving the right side of your body.
  • Speech and language problems. You may have trouble speaking or understanding others.
  • Slow and cautious behavior. You may need a lot of help to complete everyday tasks.
  • Memory problems. You may not remember what you did 10 minutes ago. Or you may have a hard time learning new things.

A stroke in the cerebellum can cause:

  • Stiffness and tightness in the upper body that can cause spasms or jerky movements
  • Eye problems, such as blurry or double vision
  • Balance problems
  • Dizziness, nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), and vomiting

Strokes in the brain stem are very harmful. Since impulses that start in the brain must travel through the brain stem on their way to the arms and legs, patients with a brain stem stroke may also develop paralysis.

How do I know if I'm at risk for a stroke?

A stroke can happen to anyone. Some women are more at risk because of certain health problems, family health history, age, and habits. These are called risk factors.

You can't change some risk factors, like your age, race or ethnicity, or family history. The good news is that you can control many other stroke risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and unhealthy eating.

Learn more about controllable and uncontrollable stroke risk factors.

How do I know if I'm having a stroke?

Strokes happen fast and are a medical emergency. If you think you or someone else may be having a stroke, use the F.A.S.T test:

F—Face: Look in the mirror and smile, or ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A—Arms: Raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S—Speech: Repeat a simple phrase, like "Hello, my name is ____." Is the speech slurred or strange?
T—Time: Act fast. If you see any of these signs, call 911 right away. Some treatments for stroke work only if given in the first 3 hours after symptoms appear.

Did we answer your question about stroke?

For more information about stroke, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:

  • Know Stroke — The Know Stroke. Know the Signs. Act in Time. campaign from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
  • Stroke Warning Signs and Symptoms — Information from the American Stroke Association

Sources

  1. Heron, M. (2016). Deaths: Leading Causes for 2014. National Vital Statistics Reports; 65(5). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.