Women's Health

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Preventing Stroke: What Every Woman Should Know


What Women Need to Know About Stroke Risk 


By Alexandra Kilpatrick  


Can you name the risk factors or symptoms of a stroke? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. In 2010, HealthyWomen.org, the National Stroke Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians surveyed 2,000 women about stroke. Only 27 percent were able to name more than two primary stroke symptoms — and only eight percent had talked to their doctor about their individual risk.

It’s time for women to start paying more attention. Each year, around 425,000 women suffer a stroke (that’s 55,000 more than men). Between the ages of 45 and 65, a woman’s risk of stroke is double that of a man’s. And when a woman does experience a stroke, she is at greater risk for a major disability (including paralysis, memory loss and speech problems), or for dying from stroke (61 percent of stroke deaths each year are women).

Take control of your health. Learn about the stroke risk factors and warning signs that affect women — and how you can prevent stroke.


Stroke Risk Factors in Women

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is reduced or blocked. This deprives the brain of the oxygen and nutrients it needs, causing brain cells to die. Why does stroke affect women in greater numbers than men? One major factor seems to be life span. Women typically live longer than men, and risk of stroke increases with age, doubling for every decade after the age of 55. In addition, it appears that women’s cholesterol and blood pressure levels tend to rise more rapidly than men’s do in middle age (after menopause). High cholesterol and high blood pressure are major risk factors for stroke in men and women (both cholesterol and hypertension increase the risk of having blocked arteries, which disrupts blood flow).

Along with age, blood pressure and cholesterol, there are several other factors that can put women at an increased stroke risk, including:

  • Family history of stroke: Your risk of stroke is greater if an immediately family member has suffered one.
  • Smoking: Smokers have twice the risk of stroke compared to nonsmokers. Tobacco use increases plaque build up in the arteries, blocking blood flow. It also reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, making it easier for blood clots to form. 
  • Obesity: Obesity can up your risk of several stroke factors, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease.
  • Diabetes: Many people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or are obese. All of those factors up your risk for stroke.
  • Pregnancy: Many women have higher blood pressure during pregnancy or right after childbirth, increasing stroke risk.
  • Waist Size: Post-menopausal women with a waist size larger than 35.2 inches and a triglyceride (blood fat) level higher than 128 milligrams per liter may have a higher risk of stroke.
  • Migraines: Research has shown a link between migraines and an increased risk of stroke. Women are more likely to suffer from migraines than men.
  • Birth Control Pills: Birth control pills are usually safe for young, healthy women. But for women who are over the age of 35, who smoke or who have high blood pressure or cholesterol, birth control pills may increase their risk of stroke.
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy: Taking hormones, particularly estrogen combined with progestin, may increase a woman’s risk of stroke depending on a variety of factors, including your age and personal medical history. 

Other stroke risk factors include race (African Americans and Pacific Islanders have a higher risk of stroke), having an abnormal heart rhythm and binge drinking.


Stroke Warning Signs in Women

Recognizing the symptoms of a stroke is essential to getting prompt treatment and minimizing damage to your brain. Common warning signs of stroke for both men and women may include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Severe headache with no known cause

In addition to these classic symptoms, women also may experience sudden, unique symptoms, including:

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

Strokes happen quickly — and every second that passes after you experience the first symptom counts. Do not wait to see if your symptoms get worse — if you suspect you are having a stroke, seek medical treatment immediately. Stroke treatment can drastically reduce the amount of damage done to your brain and increase your chance of recovering with limited disability — but those treatments need to be administered within three hours of when you first experience symptoms.


Stroke Prevention

Preventing a stroke should be a top priority for women — an estimated 80 percent of strokes can be prevented. There are many steps you can take to reduce your risk.  

Lifestyle changes — like controlling high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and monitoring your alcohol use — play a big part in keeping you healthy; in some cases, certain medications may also help lower your chance of stroke. Talk to your doctor; he or she can help you determine your personal risk factors, and can help you develop a plan to maintain a healthy lifestyle.  

Published April 22, 2013. 

Alexandra Kilpatrick recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame and now works as a journalist in Chicago, IL. 


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