Mary Kay VanDriel: Health matters: Gender differences with stroke

By Mary Kay VanDriel, R. N.
A stroke is a serious situation. You’ve probably seen the public health campaign about the FAST signs of stroke:

  • Facial droop is evident when you ask the person to smile.
  • Arm drifts downward when you ask the person to raise their arm.
  • Speech is slurred and the person struggles to repeat a phrase.
  • Time is critical to get them to care. If you can get to the emergency department within three hours of the onset of symptoms, we can administer a clot-busting medication.

There is an excellent video on YouTube called “Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of InSight” that describes in vivid detail what it’s like to experience a stroke.  Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, had a stroke one morning, and retells the story in a powerful way. After I watched the video, I understood why patients can’t call for help. Dr. Bolte Taylor describes having a nirvana-type feeling and vaguely knowing she needed help, but at the same time being completely unable to communicate what was happening.

While the general signs of stroke are universal, there can be some differences between symptoms in women and men. Women typically have a loss of balance and coordination when experiencing a stroke. They also tend to experience confusion and unconsciousness. Women will have more nausea, heart attack-like symptoms and severe headaches than men.

Men typically have atherosclerotic strokes, which is basically plaque building up inside the arteries. Women have more cardio embolic strokes, which is a clot formed from debris in the cardiac area.

Women have an additional risk for stroke due to birth control pill use, pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy and migraines.

While all the things mentioned above can help with diagnosing a stroke, the best thing you can do is prevent a stroke. One of the best ways is to keep a close watch on your blood pressure.

I was checking blood pressures after a church service one day as part of a community outreach program, and a fella in his 30s came over to my station. When I checked his blood pressure, it was above 180/100, which is drastically high, so I rechecked it three times. After the third time, I shared with him my concern and offered to call him an ambulance.

He leaned over and whispered, “See that couple over there with my wife? Those are my in-laws. They have been here for a week and they are going home today. I know my blood pressure will come down once they leave.”

There are many reasons for an elevated blood pressure, including a visit from the in-laws. Know your numbers and take steps today to keep it around 120/80 to reduce your risk of stroke.

Mary Kay VanDriel is a Registered Nurse who serves as the president of Spectrum Health Big Rapids and Reed City Hospitals. Look for her column to improve your health the last Saturday of each month. If you have suggestions for column topics, email Sarah.Neubecker@spectrumhealth.org.

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