Stroke is like a heart attack that strikes the brain. But with stroke, an artery in or leading to the head, rather than the chest, bursts or gets blocked. This deprives the brain of blood and oxygen, and cells begin to die. Body functions controlled by the part of the brain that's dying, like vision, coordination, and speech, are disrupted.
With both heart disease and stroke, fatty deposits and high blood pressure are the culprits that harm the arteries, explains Louise McCullough, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of stroke research and education at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. Not surprisingly, stroke's biggest risk factors are the very things that can also lead to heart attacks, like obesity, smoking, and excessive use of alcohol. About 700,000 Americans experience strokes each year, making stroke the number one cause of disability and the number three killer after heart disease and all cancers combined. Stroke risk doubles every decade after 55, and two-thirds of strokes occur in people over 65.
It's wrong to think of stroke as something that happens only to old men. Women are more likely than men to experience strokes, to have more complications from them, and to die after suffering one. And it's not just older women. "Women in their 30s and 40s are frequently too young to have strokes as a result of what we think of as 'traditional risk factors,'" explains Emil Matarese, M.D., spokesperson for the American Stroke Association's Power to End Stroke program and director of the St. Mary's Stroke Center, where Kim Dunne was treated. "Instead, otherwise healthy young women have strokes because of less commonly known problems that go undetected until they have their first brain attack." Here, a closer look at these obscured, but ever-present, risk factors.