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Why women should know about stroke

Stroke is as much of a threat to women as it is to men. Protect yourself by learning about your risk factors and knowing the signs and symptoms.

It doesn't get the attention that osteoporosis does.

And there are no pink ribbons or red dress campaigns to raise awareness like there are for breast cancer and heart disease.

Stroke, it might seem, isn't on the country's radar as a women's health priority. But if you're a woman, it should be on yours.

Each year, about 795,000 people have strokes in America, according to the American Heart Association. About 140,000 deaths are attributed to stroke each year.

Of these deaths, about 60% occur in women. For those who survive, stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability.

As a woman, you may have some unique risk factors for stroke. But you also have more power to prevent stroke than you might realize. By learning what puts you at risk and acting quickly if stroke occurs, you may be able to prevent a stroke or avoid its devastating consequences.

Recognize your risk

Strokes happen when blood is prevented from reaching the brain, usually by a blood clot or a broken blood vessel. Without adequate blood, brain cells die. That can cause trouble speaking, paralysis and other problems.

Depending on the severity of the stroke and how quickly it's treated, brain damage can be permanent or even deadly.

Many risk factors for stroke apply to men and women, according to the American Stroke Association. Among them:

  • Increasing age.
  • Family history.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Tobacco smoke.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Physical inactivity.
  • Excess weight.
  • Diabetes.
  • Atrial fibrillation.

But some risk factors are unique to women.

Use of birth control pills combined with smoking. Smokers who use birth control pills greatly increase their risk of stroke. 

Smoking itself is an important risk factor for stroke, so if you smoke, try to quit. That's even more important if you also use birth control pills.

Pregnancy. Although the risk is small, pregnancy increases a woman's chance of stroke because, among other things, it raises blood pressure and puts stress on the heart.

Having a thick waist. Women with fat mostly around their waist have a much greater risk for stroke.

The big picture

When deciding on a stroke-prevention strategy, it's important to look at all of your risk factors together.

With your doctor's help, you can identify specific steps you can take to bring your risk down. These steps might include:

  • Managing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and health problems such as diabetes.
  • Controlling your weight.
  • Choosing healthful foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
  • Quitting smoking.

For some women, additional steps, such as avoiding birth control pills or taking low-dose aspirin, might also be recommended. Your doctor can help you form the best prevention plan, based on your unique risk profile.

Speed matters

Should a stroke occur, act fast. Warning signs come on suddenly and may include:

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

If you have any of these signs (even if they improve after a few minutes), call 911. Delays in getting help can be costly.

Treatment with a drug called tissue plasminogen activator can dramatically lessen the effects of some strokes—but only if it's given within three hours (or up to four and a half hours for some patients) of a stroke's onset. This makes it important to note the time when symptoms begin.

The clock starts when the symptoms start, not when you get to the emergency room. Unfortunately, many patients don't get to the hospital in time to receive the drug. And after three hours, the number of people eligible to receive it decreases.

Remember, as a woman, you're not immune to stroke. But you're not powerless against it either. Educating yourself and taking the necessary steps to reduce your risk may help keep you healthy and independent.

Reviewed 6/27/2023

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