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Women Often Unaware of Stroke Risk

Survey Shows Many of the Most at-Risk Women Can't Identify Risk Factors for Stroke
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WebMD Health News

Feb. 11, 2009 -- 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 risk.

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 stroke.
  • 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.

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