Stroke in women

Posted by Felix Chukwudelunzu, M.D.
April 24, 2014

A stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is blocked or when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures, causing brain cells to die due to deprivation of oxygen and nutrients.

Women of all ages should pay more attention to the risk of stroke than the average man, because about 55,000 more women than men have a stroke each year in the United States. While stroke is the fifth leading cause of death for men, it is the third leading cause of death for women. With the aging population, these trends are likely to continue to rise.

Men and women share many of the same risk factors for stroke, but women have sex-specific risk factors, including pregnancy, use of oral contraceptives and hormonal therapy. About three out of 10,000 pregnant women will have a stroke during pregnancy, compared to two out of 10,000 women who are not pregnant. Women on oral contraceptives who also have high blood pressure double their risk for stroke. Preeclampsia, which is elevated blood pressure during pregnancy, is associated with doubling of the risk of stroke later in life even after blood pressure returns to normal after delivery.

In addition, some risk factors for stroke are more common in women than they are in men, including migraine with aura, a type of headache accompanied by distortions in vision and hearing; cerebral vein thrombosis, blood clot formations in the brain; and atrial fibrillation, irregular and often rapid heart rate.

The signs of stroke are the same for women and men, including:  

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Everyone should know their risk profile for stroke and take appropriate steps to prevent a stroke. Women, in particular, should be aware of their increased risk associated with pregnancy, age and certain medications compared to men. They should know their blood pressures before starting an oral contraceptive or getting pregnant. Women with migraine with aura should avoid smoking and oral contraceptive use. Talk with your doctor about your personal risk for stroke.

Call 911 immediately if you think you or someone else is having a stroke.

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