If you think only men have strokes, think again. The fourth leading cause of death in the U.S., stroke is an equal opportunity employer, able to strike both sexes with astonishing ferocity. Strokes are statistically deadlier and more debilitating for women than they are for men. Lack of knowledge about how stroke symptoms and risk factors can differ between the sexes may cause fatal lags in prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Don’t let what you don’t know hurt you, or someone you love. Learning how strokes vary between the sexes can make all the difference.

Age at Onset

Strokes used to be associated with old age but statistically, more women than ever before are experiencing their first-ever stroke during mid-life, typically around the time of menopause. This may be due to naturally occurring, hormonal changes in the female body. Women also tend to suffer from strokes during their later years, with female risk escalating during the early seventies.

In contrast, men typically have their first-ever stroke during their late sixties. Men continue to suffer from strokes in greater numbers than women, until around age 75.

Strokes can happen to anyone at any age. Do not hesitate to seek medical attention if you suspect a stroke is occurring, even in a young person of either sex.

Stroke Symptoms

A stroke’s classic symptoms are facial drooping, arm weakness on one side of the body and aphasia, or trouble communicating. Men and women may both present with these and other symptoms at the onset of a stroke, but women are more likely to experience non-classical or vague symptoms, which often go unidentified, even by medical professionals. These include:  

  • Fainting
  • Headaches
  • Chest and/or Limb Pain
  • Nausea
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Gasping or Inability to Catch a Breath
  • Hiccups
  • Overall Feeling of Weakness
  • Palpitations

Women are also less likely to seek medical treatment promptly, even when the more obvious symptoms of a stroke are occurring. For this reason, they may not receive life-saving medication, such as clot-busting drugs like tPA, as quickly as men will. Some studies indicate that men experiencing stroke symptoms receive diagnostic testing such as carotid evaluations and echocardiograms, upon arrival in emergency rooms, far more quickly than women do.     

Risk Factors of a Stroke

A history of heart disease or diabetes will increase stroke risk in both men and women, as will smoking, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Other shared risk factors include high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These are, however, more likely to be diagnosed and treated at an earlier age in men than in women.

Certain risk factors typically specific to women may include:

  • A history of migraines
  • Medication use such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
  • Tummy fat, particularly when combined with high triglyceride levels
  • Pregnancy
  • Living alone, as many elderly women do, may exacerbate the time lag between stroke onset and medical treatment

Stroke Outcome

Women tend to live longer than men do and advanced age is a risk factor of a stroke. Old age is one reason why strokes in women tend to be fatal more often than they are in men.

Women who survive strokes also tend to experience greater levels of debilitation post-stroke than their male counterparts will, and often require institutionalized living, either permanently or for longer periods of time after the occurrence of a stroke than men do.

Post-stroke women do respond better, however, to thrombolysis, or clot-busting medication therapy, than their male counterparts.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.