Women and Stroke

Stroke is a condition that can affect anyone, regardless of age, race or gender. However, certain risk factors and conditions can increase your chances. A good example is that while stroke may be the fifth leading cause of death for men, it is the third leading cause of death for women.1,2 Each year, 55,000 more women will have a stroke than men and, because women often live longer, experiencing a stroke will have more of a negative effect on their quality of life. The good news is that up to 80% of strokes can be prevented.1 This fact makes it even more important for you to be aware of your risk of having a stroke. 

Women and Stroke

A stroke, sometimes called a ‘brain attack’ occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is cut off for a period of time. When brain cells no longer have access to oxygen, they start to die so it is important to get help as soon as you experience a stroke.2 While nearly 60% of stroke deaths are women, many of the symptoms are the same for men and women. The common symptoms of stroke are:1

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in an arm or leg, particularly on one side of the body.
  • Sudden numbness on one side of the face, also known as facial drooping.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Still, stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer, a fact of which women may not be aware.1,2,3  In a survey on women and stroke by HealthyWomen and in partnership with the American College of Emergency Physicians and the National Stroke Association, the women surveyed believed breast cancer was five times more common than stroke.

Some additional results from the survey include:3

  • Only 27% of women surveyed could name no more than two of the six primary stroke symptoms.
  • One in four women did not know that stroke can happen at any age.
  • Women under 50 were much less confident about their level of knowledge of stroke.

While knowing the common symptoms of stroke can be incredibly helpful, it is also important to note that women can, at times, have stroke symptoms that are different, creating the possibility that a stroke could be mistaken for something else. These uncommon symptoms include:

  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
  • General weakness
  • Difficulty or shortness of breath
  • Confusion, unresponsiveness or disorientation
  • Sudden behavioral changes
  • Agitation
  • Hallucination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Hiccups

Stroke Risk Factors for Women

Women don’t just experience different symptoms of stroke, but they also have additional risk factors. While the normal risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and family history apply to all, these particular risk factors are unique to women:1,2  

  • Women, on average, live longer, increasing their odds of stroke.
  • Having high blood pressure while pregnant or preeclampsia.
  • Certain birth control pills can increase your risk of stroke, particularly when combined with high blood pressure and a smoking habit.
  • Having a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or stress. Women are twice as likely as men to experience depression and anxiety.2
  • Using hormone replacement therapy.

Suffering from migraine headaches with aura. Migraines can increase a woman’s stroke risk by 2.5 times and most people who suffer from migraines in the United States are women.1

It’s important to also note that there are hereditary differences when it comes to stroke risk. While not all of the reasoning is clear, minorities have an overall higher stroke risk and first strokes occurring at younger ages than other ethnicities. African American women are nearly twice as likely to have a stroke then white women and African Americans overall are more affected by stroke than any other racial group within the population of America.1 Asian Americans are still more likely to suffer from a stroke than Caucasian Americans, but they are the least likely among the other American ethnicities.1 Studies have shown that Hispanics are more likely to have a stroke at a younger age in comparison to non-Hispanics and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have shown to have higher incidence of some of the major stroke risk factors including high blood pressure and diabetes.1

Preventing Stroke

As previously mentioned, stroke is a condition that can be prevented. First, the best way is to be aware of stroke and to know the symptoms. The moment you experience stroke symptoms, get help. The next best way to prevent stroke is management of your risk factors. Manage your diet and watch your cholesterol level and blood pressure. Try to eat healthier and watch your intake of foods that contain salt, or sodium, to keep your blood pressure low. Make sure to stay active and, if you have other health conditions that put you at a higher risk, keep those in check as well. Finally, talk with your doctor about your health and your stroke risk. One in five women in the United States will have a stroke in her lifetime, but it can be prevented.2

References:

  1. National Stroke Association. Women and Stroke. www.stroke.org. 2017. Retrieved from the website: http://www.stroke.org/understand-stroke/impact-stroke/women-and-stroke.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Women and Stroke Infographic. www.cdc.gov. December 28, 2016. Retrieved from the website: https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/docs/women_stroke_factsheet.pdf.
  3. “Women and Stroke Survey”. Survey. www.healthywomen.org. April 3, 2010. Web. Accessed March 8, 2013.