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Health Information Facts Every Woman Should Know About Stroke

Learn how to prevent and recognize stroke in women.

It'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 physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Merrie Viscarra, DO, says 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," she 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:

1. With stroke symptoms, gender matters. Both men and women experience symptoms that are commonly identified with stroke, such as numbness or weakness on one side of the body, and a sudden, severe headache (often described as "the worst headache I've ever had.").

But these unique symptoms in women may also indicate a stroke:

  • Sudden face and limb pain.
  • Sudden hiccups. As strange as it may sound, hiccups are controlled by nerves in your brain. When those nerves become irritated, it can — in rare instances — cause a stroke.
  • Sudden extreme sleepiness. Never ignore an urgent, out-of-the-blue need to lie down and take a nap. Going to sleep is the worst thing to do if you're having a stroke, because it keeps you from getting help immediately.
  • Sudden nausea.
  • Sudden general weakness.
  • Sudden chest pain, shortness of breath or heart palpitations.

2. 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.

3. Using birth control pills can raise stroke risk. The American Stroke Association reports that women who take birth control pills — especially low-estrogen 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 stroke.

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.

4. 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 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 up your risk significantly.

5. 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. Reducing your controllable risk factors won't just lower your stroke risk, it will make you healthier all around."

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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March-April 2014

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