News Release

February 7, 2006

Contact: Carolyn Pennington, 860-679-4864

Why Your Sex Matters: Stroke and Gender Differences

UConn Physician Researches Why More Women Die of Stroke than Men

FARMINGTON, CONN. – Women tend to think stroke is a men's disease. But the truth is, each year more women than men die from stroke. Annually, of the 700,000 Americans who have a stroke, 39 percent who die are men, 62 percent are women, according to the National Stroke Association.

“Both stroke incidence and mortality have increased in women over the past three decades, which has not been true for men,” says Louise McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., director of stroke research at the University of Connecticut Health Center. “Heart disease and stroke take more women’s lives than the next five leading causes of death combined--cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and unintentional injuries.”

Stroke related to gender has historically been an understudied topic, according to McCullough. She is trying to change that. She is a board certified vascular neurologist and a basic science researcher who has found what happens in the lab may not hold true when tested in humans. Even though estrogen appears to offer a protective effect against stroke when administered to lab animals, clinical trials in humans found hormone replacement therapy could actually increase stroke risk, she explained.

McCullough is also looking closely at the way women are treated for stroke compared to men. Studies have found that women are less likely to receive prescriptions for blood pressure medications or advised to take aspirin, both of which have been shown to reduce stroke risk. In contrast, women are more likely than men to receive anti-anxiety medication.

Researchers conducting lab work, using tissue cultures or animal models, found certain drugs that protect male brains from stroke do nothing to protect female brains. In fact, some medications could do more harm than good. “Clinical trials need to be carefully considered before testing them on humans,” said McCullough. “And in the future, gender-based designer drugs may be the answer.”

It’s important to note that 80 percent of strokes are preventable and there are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk. Some risk factors are the same for men and women: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, being overweight, and not exercising. Other risks are unique to women: taking birth control pills, using hormone replacement therapy, having a thick waist and high triglyceride level, and being a migraine headache sufferer.

Common stroke symptoms seen in both men and women: weakness or numbness in the face, arms or legs, especially on one side of the body; visual changes in one or both eyes; severe headache; dizziness or loss of balance; and trouble speaking or understanding. And women may experience some unique warning signs such as sudden hiccups, nausea, chest pain, and shortness of breath.

Knowing these symptoms is crucial in order to receive treatment as quickly as possible. If the stroke is caused by a blood clot, the most common type, a medication called t-PA dissolves clots, and should be given within three hours after symptoms begin.

“Too many women ignore the symptoms,” says Dr. McCullough. “So many women have told me they thought their symptoms would disappear if they took a nap or just rested awhile. And then by the time they get to the emergency room, it’s too late.”

A stroke is a form of cardiovascular disease that affects the arteries traveling towards and inside the brain. A stroke results when one of these vessels becomes blocked or bursts and the brain is deprived of blood and oxygen. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in America and the number one cause of adult disability.

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