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A heartbeat away from stroke

Lynne never knew that atrial fibrillation tripled her risk of stroke
A group of senior women exercise in a pool.

Lynne Stacey lives with atrial fibrillation (Afib), a condition that causes an irregular and fast heartbeat. With treatment most people live normal, active lives.

Active certainly describes Lynne, 80. She is a practicing physiotherapist and leads regular pool exercise classes for people recovering from stroke and other conditions. She also curls three times a week and teaches piano. But she was unaware that Afib more than tripled her own risk of stroke.

Two years ago, Lynne was changing into her bathing suit for her class, when she suddenly lost her ability to speak and move the right side of her body.

Lynne knew all about the signs of stroke from her patients. But she was confused; everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. “It took me a while to realize what was happening,” she recalls.

It was one of her class participants who recognized that she was having a stroke and called 9-1-1.

Lynne was rushed to the hospital where she was treated with alteplase (also called tPA), a clot-busting drug, as well as endovascular thrombectomy (EVT), a procedure to physically remove clots from large blood vessels in the brain.

More impact on women

Stories like Lynne’s are unfortunately still too common, says Heart & Stroke researcher Dr. Jodi Edwards. Research shows that strokes caused by Afib are often more severe in women. Women are also more likely to die from Afib-related stroke. 

With her team at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Dr. Edwards is investigating how to detect women at high risk of Afib-related stroke at an earlier stage, to improve diagnosis and ensure that women with Afib receive the best available therapies to reduce this risk.

"For many women, these risks are not optimally managed or they do not have sufficient access to preventive care,” says Dr. Edwards.

Women have historically been underrepresented in Afib research trials. And there are differences in how women with Afib are managed, compared to men.

For example, blood thinners are often prescribed for people with Afib as they greatly reduce stroke risk. However, women are often prescribed lower doses of blood thinner medication compared to men. This is despite evidence that higher doses of the newer anticoagulants are more effective for stroke prevention. Women with Afib are also less likely to undergo some procedures to treat the condition, including electric cardioversion, a brief electric shock that resets the heart back to a regular pattern.

Lynne has made a great recovery and considers herself fortunate to have received timely life-saving treatment. “I am one of the lucky ones who came out of stroke basically unharmed.” She now takes blood thinning medication to manage her risk of another stroke from Afib.

Today Lynne wants others to learn from her experience and believes women need to become more aware.

“I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. I had no idea I was going to have a stroke. We need to get more information out about personal risk factors and increase awareness of the signs of stroke.”