A Warning to Women About Strokes
While a stroke may not be on your radar, it is a serious health risk for women.
According to the National Stroke Association, stroke is the third-leading cause of death for women, compared to the fifth-leading cause of death for men. And, each year strokes kill twice as many women as breast cancer. Despite these numbers, most women don’t realize that they are at risk.
Virtua neurologist, Carole Thomas, MD, offers women advice on navigating the risks and protecting their health.
Know the Risks
Strokes can affect men and women of all ages, but for women, there are unique risk factors that can adversely affect blood pressure, a root cause of stroke. These can include:
- Birth control pills
- Hormone therapy
- Migraine headaches with aura
That doesn’t mean women shouldn’t use contraception, have children, or seek treatment to relieve the symptoms of menopause. It simply means they should understand that they are potentially at risk for stroke, especially if they are affected by the conditions that are at the root of strokes in women and men such as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Awareness and Action
As Dr. Thomas explains, awareness is a big part of stroke prevention in women. “Anyone who has a brain can have a stroke. The problem is that strokes don’t cause pain. When we’re in pain, or if we’re bleeding, we go to the hospital. But if someone’s a little numb or talking funny, they just think they’re having a bad day, and they go to bed. The reality is – they may have had a stroke.”
In fact, strokes symptoms in women may appear differently than these typical signs, which often appear suddenly:
- Weakness specific to a side of the body
- Loss of speech
- Loss of facial control
Sometimes, stroke symptoms in women appear as:
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Sudden behavioral change
- Nausea or vomiting
Dr. Thomas cautions women to take action in the face of a stroke - NOT to overlook the potential signs. “I’ve had quite a few patients who felt symptoms, but didn’t seek treatment or go to the hospital, simply because they didn’t think they could have a stroke. But if you don’t go to the hospital, we can’t treat you.” Emergency stroke assessment must happen quickly to determine the type of stroke and the best treatment plan for it. Rapid treatment also helps minimize stroke damage.
According to Dr. Thomas, there are many simple steps women can take to prevent stroke. She encourages women who smoke, especially younger women, to quit as soon as possible and work to improve their health through diet and exercise. It’s also important to control and follow treatment for chronic diseases that increase women's stroke risk such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and vascular diseases.
Use FAST to Remember the Warning Signs of a Stroke (from the National Stroke Association)
Updated April 25, 2017