Stroke is currently the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases. A stroke occurs when there is an issue with the blood supply to the brain. The blood supply is either blocked, causing the most common form of stroke, (ischemic stroke) or a blood vessel ruptures within the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). During a stroke, the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen or nutrients which causes brain cells to die. Approximately 800,000 people have a stroke each year, with more women (60 percent) being affected by strokes than men (40 percent).
The fact that women are at a higher risk of stroke than men deserves special attention. Stroke is the third-leading cause of death among women, behind heart disease and cancer. Women may experience unique risk factors that increase their risk of having a stroke. Women can also experience unique symptoms that make identifying a stroke more difficult, leading to a delay of care which can affect outcomes. Medical professionals and even the public have been trained to recognize basic signs of stroke with the NIH Stroke Scale.
- Taking birth control pills. The risks associated with taking birth control pills is more concerning when additional risk factors are involved, such as age, smoking, high blood pressure, or diabetes.
- Pregnancy. Risk of stroke increases during a normal pregnancy due to the changes to the body such as stress on the heart and an increase in blood pressure.
- Using Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). Women may take progesterone and estrogen as a form of therapy to relieve symptoms of menopause. But hormone replacement therapy, especially a combination of the two hormones, can increase a woman’s risk of stroke.
- Migraine headaches with aura (blinking lights or moving dots). Migraines are more common in women and can increase a woman’s risk of having a stroke two and half times.
- Atrial Fibrillation. Women are more likely to suffer from an abnormal heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation. The risk of a stroke is greater due to the irregular heartbeat caused by atrial fibrillation because it may allow a blood clot to escape from the heart and block a blood vessel.
Symptoms of stroke for women are similar to those in men. These include drooping of the face, sudden numbness or weakness of the arm, and difficulty with speech or trouble understanding. However, according to the National Stroke Association, women may have unique symptoms. A list of these symptoms can be found here.
Although women may experience a higher risk of stroke than men, there are several things women can do to reduce their risk.
- Women should be screened for high blood pressure before taking birth control pills since the combination of the two can increase a woman’s risk.
- Women who have a history of high blood pressure should work closely with their physicians about the need for a low-dose aspirin or calcium supplement therapy to lower the risk of preeclampsia. Women with preeclampsia have two times the risk of stroke and have are a greater risk for developing high blood pressure later in life.
- Avoid smoking. Women who smoke and experience migraines with aura should stop smoking to avoid the higher risk of stroke.
- Women older than 75 years old should be screened for atrial fibrillation.
- Women should eat a balanced diet that is also low in sodium, to help maintain a healthy blood pressure.
Strokes can be devastating to both men and women but given that risk factors vary between men and women, it is important for health communicators to deploy promotions and education tools that emphasize the differences in order to effectively reach every demographic.