Women and Stroke

6 facts women should know to prevent and recognize stroke

Brain Health & Conditions
Women and Stroke

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

But according to neurologist Sarah Song, MD, MPH of the Rush Stroke Program, 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. 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, Song says knowing these facts can help save lives:

1. 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. 

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. 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 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 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.

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.

"Time is brain." If it is a stroke, the sooner you get treatment, the better your chance of surviving ... [and having] successful rehabilitation and recovery.

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 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 increase 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. 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.

6. A transient ischemic attack, or ‘mini-stroke,’ is a warning sign.

A transient ischemic attack, also known as a TIA or "mini-stroke," causes the same symptoms as a stroke but lasts only minutes to a few hours.

Even though there may not be lasting effects from a TIA, you should still seek immediate medical help. That includes talking to your doctor about how to prevent a full-blown stroke because having a TIA puts you at greater risk for having a stroke.

The good news: With early management and appropriate behavioral changes and other interventions, these risks can be lowered.

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