Study Looking at How Women and Men Experience and React to Strokes

Armen Hareyan's picture

What does it feel like to have a stroke? For some people, the ability to speak or walk disappears in a moment. For others, arms, legs and faces suddenly go numb. And for others, it's a rush of confusion or dizziness.

Hopefully, such strange and sudden feelings would prompt most people to get help, get to an emergency room and get treatment right away. And the faster they act, the better their chances of surviving and escaping long-term disability: The only drug to treat stroke needs to be given in the first three hours after a "brain attack" starts.

But what if you had a stroke and your symptoms weren't typical? What if you felt sudden pain on one side of your body, or nearly had a blackout? Many people might shrug it off for a while, not even thinking it could be a stroke. Even if they seek treatment immediately, their description of their symptoms may not make a nurse or doctor suspect a stroke.

Women are more likely than men to have such non-typical stroke symptoms, according to previous research from a member of the University of Michigan Stroke Program that looked at data from past stroke patients in Texas.

Now, the U-M team is taking this issue to the next level, with a new project that thoroughly interviews every man and woman who comes to the U-M Emergency Department with any signs of stroke. By building a detailed picture of exactly what the patients felt, and how they described those feelings to others, the team hopes to find out more about gender differences in stroke.

Those differences could help explain things that have puzzled stroke specialists for years: why women often get to the emergency room too late for stroke treatment, and why they're more likely to die or be disabled by their stroke than men.

U-M research investigator Lynda Lisabeth, Ph.D., leads the study. She says that part of the problem may be a perception by women that stroke is a man's disease.


"I think a lot of women are unaware that cardiovascular disease, including stroke and heart attack, is their largest health risk," she says, noting that stroke is the third leading cause of death and the top cause of disability in America. "It's important for women to understand that they're also at risk for having a stroke, and for both men and women to recognize the warning signs of stroke so they can call 911 immediately and get to the hospital quickly and in time for therapy."

Lisabeth, a member of the U-M Health System's Stroke Program and the U-M Medical School's Department of Neurology, explains that while men have a higher risk of stroke over their lifetime, more women than men in the United States actually experience a stroke, because women on average live longer than men.

More women than men die from strokes, too. "Currently, women account for about 60 percent of U.S. stroke deaths each year," she says.

The new U-M project is funded jointly by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the Department of Neurology at the University of Michigan.

It will make it possible for Lisabeth and her colleagues to collect more and better data about the symptoms that men and women feel when they have a stroke, and the things that happen after those symptoms start.

In addition to documenting the classic stroke symptoms of sudden speech, vision, movement and thinking problems, the researchers will also ask patients about a range of symptoms and sensations not usually associated with stroke, to see how often these occur. And, they'll ask permission to look at individual patients' records and see how long it took them to arrive at the hospital, and how they arrived.

"If women are experiencing non-traditional stroke symptoms, they may be unaware that they're having a stroke, and this may result in a delay in seeking care and getting to the hospital," says Lisabeth. "Once at the hospital, it could actually result in a delay in getting acute stroke therapy."

That therapy, called tPA, has been proven to save lives and prevent long-term disability. It's used in stroke patients whose stroke is caused by a blocked blood vessel in the brain