Each year, stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer. Yet few women are aware of the risk factors and symptoms of stroke—or the steps they can take to reduce their risk of having one.
A few more statistics: Stroke is the third leading cause of death for women, but only the fifth leading cause for men. And because women have a longer life expectancy than men, the impact of a stroke carries more weight. Women are more likely than men to live alone or in a long-term healthcare facility after a stroke and, because of all these factors, tend to have a harder recovery. What’s more, women tend to have different stroke symptoms than men, as well as different risk factors.
When it comes to women and stroke, there needs to be greater awareness. 80 percent of strokes are preventable. But to do so, women must first understand and address their risk factors.
Let’s start with the basics. Most people know the general risk factors for stroke—family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise and being overweight.
But women have their own unique risk factors. The first is taking birth control pills. In and of itself, oral contraceptives do not significantly increase the risk of stroke. It’s when the woman taking them has another significant risk factor—like diabetes, high blood pressure or smoking—that their likelihood increases.
Being pregnant is another risk factor because pregnancy tends to increase both blood pressure and stress on the heart. That’s why it’s important that women take care of themselves during pregnancy by seeing their doctor regularly.
Suffering from migraine headaches with aura is another significant stroke risk factor for women. Women who experience these kinds of migraines and smoke are advised to stop smoking immediately.
Stroke symptoms in women can be different as well. The symptoms that both men and women experience are numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance; and sudden severe headache with no known cause.
Symptoms unique to women are loss of consciousness or fainting, general weakness, shortness of breath, confusion, disorientation, sudden behavioral changes, agitation, hallucination, nausea, vomiting, pain, seizures and even hiccups.
So what can women do to protect their health? Eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, not smoking and limiting alcohol are the basics for everyone. But women should also monitor their blood pressure during and after pregnancy, be screened for high blood pressure prior to starting birth control, discuss the benefits and risks of hormone replacement therapy with their doctor and be screened for atrial fibrillation if they are over 75.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of a stroke is critical as long-term recovery depends on how quickly a stroke is treated. Anyone who exhibits stroke symptoms should be taken to the emergency department immediately.