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Stroke Facts for Women

Learn how to prevent and recognize stroke in women

Stroke in womenIt's telling that although more women suffer from stroke each year than men, the majority of women aren't aware of this fact. As is the case with heart attacks, stroke is often perceived as occurring mostly in men.

But neurologist Sarah Song, MD, MPH, and physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Merrie Viscarra, DO, say it's essential for women to be savvy when it comes to stroke.

"Understanding your risks empowers you to take steps to prevent a stroke," Viscarra says. "And being aware of the symptoms will enable you to get treatment faster if you do have a stroke, when every second counts."

Whether you're a woman or have loved ones who are women, knowing these facts can help save lives:

Don't dismiss stroke symptoms

These symptoms are commonly identified with stroke in both men and women:

  • Numbness on one side of the body and/or face
  • Weakness on one side of the body and/or face
  • Loss of vision
  • Double vision
  • Vertigo
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding language
  • Sudden severe headache (often described as "the worst headache I've ever had")

If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or another person, call 911 immediately, even if the symptoms don't cause pain or go away.

Just remember that "time is brain." If it is a stroke, the sooner you get treatment, the better your chance of surviving. Prompt treatment also improves your chances for successful rehabilitation and recovery. 

Strokes in young women are on the rise

It's true that strokes most often strike older women (and men). But the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that 1 in 5,000 women ages 15 to 49 has a stroke each year.

"One reason is thought to be the increase in obesity among younger women," Viscarra says. Studies have shown that women who are obese or have gained more than 44 pounds since age 18 are about 2.5 times more likely to have a stroke than women who maintain a healthy weight.

While obesity is a stroke risk factor on its own, it also contributes to other significant risk factors, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease — all of which are increasingly common in women today.

Using birth control pills can raise stroke risk

The American Stroke Association reports that women who take birth control pills may be twice as likely to have a stroke as those who don't. Birth control pills (often referred to as "the pill") can cause blood clots to develop. And if a clot breaks free, it can travel to the brain, causing a strok or heart attack.

But since the stroke risk for healthy young women is low to begin with, you don't necessarily have to forgo the pill. "Your doctor can help determine whether oral contraceptives or another form of birth control is best for you," Viscarra says.

That means identifying your other risk factors. If you take oral contraceptives, any additional risk factors — especially smoking, a risk factor men and women share — will increase your potential for stroke even more.

"The risk of stroke related to oral contraceptives also increases with age," adds Song.

There's a link between migraines and stroke

These crippling headaches — far more common in women than men — have been associated with an increased risk of stroke. The reason? Migraines can cause spasms in blood vessels, which can interrupt blood flow to the brain or create clots, both of which can lead to stroke.

The American Stroke Association says women who experience migraines with aura (a loss or change in vision right before the headache hits) are up to 10 times more likely to have a stroke, depending on their other risk factors. Smoking and using oral contraceptives, in particular, can inrease your risk significantly.

Women should watch their waistlines

Studies have shown that postmenopausal women with a waist measuring more than 35.2 inches and a triglyceride (blood fat) level higher than 128 mg/dL have five times the risk of stroke.

And there are other serious health risks associated with an "apple" body shape in women, including heart disease and diabetes.

"There are some stroke risk factors you can't control, like your family history, race and age," Viscarra says. "So focus on the behaviors you can change."

That includes making time to exercise and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains "Adopting a healthy lifestyle may help prevent stroke in women, especially if you have other stroke risk factors," Song says.