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Stroke Smart Magazine

Fall 2010

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Stroke is color-blind

Affects Asian, 
Hispanic and 
Native American Women Too 

By Irene 
Middleman Thomas

Dorita deLemos Down once traveled the western hemisphere, advising and consulting international organizations about economic development. She was a 75-year-old, slim and healthy Hispanic American. Yet she somehow knew what was happening on that fateful day when her entire left side, including her tongue, became numb. It was a stroke. Although she does recall that she did not fit the profile of a typical stroke survivor.

Strokes are the third leading cause of death in U.S. after cancer and heart disease. They are a leading cause of permanent, long-term disability and kill twice as many women as breast cancer each year. However, most women are not aware of their stroke risk.

Each year 795,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke, on average, one every 45 seconds. A stroke is sometimes called a  “brain attack.” A stroke happens when part of the brain does not get the blood it needs, due to a clot or blockage in an artery or blood vessel. Strokes can kill brain cells, which can cause a person to lose control of their speech, movement and memory. Someone who has a small stroke might experience only minor problems such as weakness of an arm or leg. People who have larger strokes might be paralyzed on one side or lose their ability to speak. Some people recover completely from strokes, but more than two-thirds of survivors do not.

“When I awoke out of my three-day coma, I couldn’t talk at all and my left side, my dominant side, was completely lost, paralyzed,” says Rebekah Donnithorne, 30, a Korean American.  “It had never crossed my mind that I could have a stroke, especially at just 24 years old.”  Donnithorne had been diagnosed one month prior to her stroke with a congenital brain abnormality. While in the hospital undergoing a nonsurgical removal procedure, she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. She is one of the many stroke sufferers who do not fit into the traditionally high-risk groups with certain lifestyles.

Six years later, Donnithorne has had to learn to use her right hand to write, still walks with a fairly noticeable limp and feels she has lost many of her speech and writing skills, as well as much of her creativity.  “I can’t dance, run or lift heavy things. It took me two years to be able to write well enough to finish my college degree,” she says. Donnithorne has put her studies on hold, preferring to volunteer at the Rocky Mountain Stroke Center, a nonprofit association that provides support and education to stroke sufferers.  “The Center has been a source of life for me since my stroke,” she explains.  “They have given me a place to heal and to start again, and a platform to stand on. Now I want to give back to them.”

Approximately 55,000 more women than men suffer from stroke each year — some 425,000 women. In addition, women in Hispanic and other minority groups are one and one-half times more at risk of first-ever strokes than Caucasians.

The risks, signs and symptoms of stroke in most minority communities are still somewhat “in the closet,” claims deLemos Down. That is why, after surviving her stroke, deLemos Down became a cofounder of the Maryland-based organization Circle of Rights, which teaches and informs minority populations about stroke prevention, signs and symptoms and recovery.

Some risk factors for stroke include: family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, sudden and severe headache with no known cause, being overweight and lack of exercise. However women have specific risk factors, such as:

  • Use of birth control pills and pregnancy
  • Use of hormone replacement therapy
  • Thick waistlines
  • Experiencing migraine headaches


In addition to having unique stroke risk factors, women also sometimes report unique stroke symptoms such as sudden:

  • Face and limb pain
  • Hiccups
  • Nausea
  • General weakness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations


Strokes can occur at any age. More than a quarter of stroke sufferers are under 65. In fact, Donnithorne, who suffered her stroke at age 24, works with a younger stroke survivor support group, designed for people ranging from 20 to 50 years old.

Strokes can affect anyone, so the best prevention is to be aware of the risk factors and to try to manage them. Rehabilitation from stroke is a lifelong journey. Although difficult, like all changes, it can be viewed as a new beginning versus a time when we lose everything. Hopefully with more awareness, more strokes can be avoided.

Strokes by the Numbers

Hispanic-American Women

Cardiovascular disease, including both heart disease and stroke, is the leading cause of death for Hispanic women. Stroke is the third leading cause of death for Hispanic women. In fact, 33 percent of all deaths in Hispanic women are due to stroke, according to the website womenshealth.gov. Studies show that Hispanics suffer from strokes at a much earlier age than Caucasians. The average age for all strokes among Hispanics is 67, compared to 80 for Caucasians. Medical conditions frequently seen in Hispanics, such as prediabetes, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, are known risk factors for stroke. Up to 30 percent of the Hispanic population has type 2 diabetes, and up to half of these cases are untreated because people do not realize that they have the disease.

Asian-American and Pacific-Islander Women

In general, Asian-American women have much lower rates of heart disease than other populations. However,  “Stroke is color blind,” points out Donnithorne. The good news for Asian Americans is that they are less likely than Caucasians to suffer strokes and they are less likely to die from them, probably because this population group tends to have fewer risk factors for stroke. Asian Americans, sometimes called the  “healthy minority” have the highest life expectancy of any group in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2009 Report on Minority Health, only 87.3 Asian women per 100,000 die from heart disease, while 160.9 Caucasians out of 100,000 die from heart disease in the U.S.

Asian-American women are generally less likely to have high blood pressure than other groups. In general, Asian-American adults have lower rates of being overweight or obese and lower rates of hypertension. They also are less likely to be current cigarette smokers. Yet significantly high levels of heart disease are seen among Filipino Americans. Even though Asian-American women have fewer risk factors, Donnithorne stresses that it is important they know the risks and the signs of a stroke.

American-Indian and Alaska-Native Women

American-Indian and Alaskan-Native women are twice as likely as Caucasian women to have a stroke. Many people in the community lack good health. In fact about one in five American Indians and Alaskan natives has two or more chronic, lifestyle-related health problems such as: diabetes, obesity, smoking, chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and injury.

While the Indian Health Service (IHS) provides limited healthcare to American Indians and Alaska Natives, more than four out of 10 Indians have no access to IHS because of their isolated living conditions on reservations. People of all ethnicities, age and gender need to understand and heed stroke warning signs. 

Irene Thomas is a freelance writer for many publications. Before writing this story she, too, did not realize that so many women in the U.S. are affected by stroke and are at risk of having a stroke. She hopes readers will take heed and make the recommended changes in their lifestyles.


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