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Dr. Frank Silver, a neurologist at Toronto Western Hospital, says a stroke is always a medical emergency that needs urgent action such as calling 911 or their local emergency number. (Toronto Western Hospital/Canadian Press)



Awareness of the warning signs of a stroke is "dangerously low" among women, the Heart and Stroke Foundation says.

Overall, 62 per cent of women were able to correctly identify two of five signs for stroke, the group said in a report released Wednesday.

"Stroke is urgent. Knowing and reacting immediately to stroke warning signs is essential," said Dr. Frank Silver, a spokesperson for the foundation and a neurologist at Toronto Western Hospital.

Stroke warning signs include:

  • Weakness: Sudden loss of strength, numbness in face, arm or leg, even if temporary.
  • Trouble speaking: Sudden difficulty talking or understanding spoken language, even if temporary.
  • Vision problems: Sudden trouble with vision, even if temporary.
  • Headache: Sudden severe or unusual headache.
  • Dizziness: Sudden loss of balance, especially with any of the above signs.

The group's national telephone survey suggested only 23 per cent of women could name even a single warning sign.

Among Canada's two largest visible-minority groups, just 29 per cent of Chinese women and 22 per cent of South Asian women identified high blood pressure as a major predisposing factor for stroke.

Genetics and environmental factors such as diet can put Chinese and South Asian women at a higher risk of stroke and death, Silver said. 

Ways to prevent stroke

  • Managing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Avoiding smoking.
  • Getting regular exercise.
  • Eating a low-sodium diet.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.

About 80 per cent of strokes are preventable.

Source: Heart and Stroke Foundation

A previous analysis shows that Canadian stroke death rates are highest among women of Chinese origin, intermediate among women of South Asian origin, and lowest among women of European origin.

When Ann Dooley of Toronto had a slight headache in mid-April, she didn't recognize the sign.

Dooley, a professor of Celtic and Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto, also began experiencing paralysis on her right side.

When her husband asked her to smile — upon instruction from a 911 dispatcher — "my smile was all crooked," Dooley said.

Following prompt treatment in hospital with a clot buster called tissue plasminogen activator, or tPa, Dooley's speech returned after 12 hours.

The Harris-Decima telephone poll of 1,013 Canadian women was conducted March 31 to April 10 and is considered accurate plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20; a second phone survey in March of 255 South Asian and 245 Chinese women is considered accurate within plus or minus 6.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

With files from The Canadian Press