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Debbie Reynolds’ stroke highlights symptom differences in women

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

Twice as many women die from strokes as breast cancer — so why aren’t we talking about it?

Last night, Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds, 84, suffered a stroke and died less than 48 hours after her daughter Carrie Fisher passed away following a heart attack.

More: What you need to know about women and heart attacks after Carrie Fisher's death

The high-profile mother and daughter both fell victim to high-profile medical conditions. Heart disease and stroke are the first and fourth leading causes of death in women, respectively. But despite their prevalence, both are still thought of as "men's diseases." And because the study and practice of medicine has traditionally been focused on the diagnosis and treatment of men, symptoms of heart disease and stroke specific to women are frequently overlooked, resulting in misdiagnosis.

More: Debbie Reynolds dead at 84 following stroke

While Fisher’s passing had us asking questions about heart disease in women, her mother’s death highlights the differences in stroke symptoms.

Many people are familiar with acting FAST if they suspect someone is having a stroke, meaning that they look for Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulty and know that it’s Time to call 911. While these apply to both men and women, there is a separate set of conditions specific to spotting a stroke in women. Considering that each year, 55,000 more women have a stroke than men and twice as many women die from having a stroke than breast cancer, it is important to be familiar with the symptoms affecting women.

More: Twitter remembers Carrie Fisher's contributions to fighting mental illness stigma

General stroke symptoms

The symptoms of a stroke come about very suddenly in both men and women, and include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, and/or
  • Severe headache with no known cause

Stroke symptoms specific to women

So to recap, women have 55,000 more strokes each year than men, yet it is still thought of as a “man’s disease” and there is a whole set of symptoms specific to women that differ from the so-called “common” (aka male) symptoms. Some of the symptoms unique to women include:

  • Loss of consciousness of fainting
  • General weakness
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Confusion, unresponsiveness or disorientation
  • Sudden behavioral change
  • Agitation
  • Hallucination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain
  • Seizures, and/or
  • Hiccups

Causes unique to women

Last year, researchers at the Ohio State University released a study that found that only 11 percent of women could identify female-specific stroke risks, several of which are related to hormones like estrogen.

"Women have thought of stroke as a man's disease and have not really been as proactive in understanding their risk for stroke," Dr. Diana Greene-Chandos, a neurologist and director of neuroscience critical care at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center, told CBS News.

Factors that increase women’s risk of stroke include:

  • Taking birth control pills
  • Being pregnant
  • Using hormone replacement therapy, and/or
  • Suffering from migraine headaches with aura

Lastly, more women live alone, have a worse recovery process and are more likely to live in a long-term health care facility after they have a stroke — all the more reason to be aware of the symptoms regardless of gender.

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