By Taylor Dahl
More women die from strokes every year than men, and women have a higher lifetime risk of stroke than men. And while risk factors such as smoking, diabetes and being obese don’t discriminate against age or gender, there are some lesser-known risks unique to women. Find out your stroke risk, as well as ways to prevent or reduce your chance of stroke, from the experts at HCA.
Approximately 75% of people who have a stroke also have hypertension. More than half of adults with hypertension are women, but as women get older, their risk becomes greater than a man’s. Often called the silent killer, high blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. That’s why it’s important to get it checked every year. Hypertension can be controlled – and even eliminated – by practicing heart-healthy habits such as weight control, exercise, stress reduction and a healthy diet.
Women who take birth control pills, including low-dose estrogen pills, could be twice as likely to suffer a stroke than those who don’t. “Birth control pills cause a stroke by triggering a clot in the blood vessel system,” says Phaniraj lyengar, MD, of Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas, NV. The risk is greatest in women who use birth control and suffer from hypertension, migraines, diabetes, or if you smoke. If you’re considering the pill, get screened for hypertension, and talk to your doctor about other stroke risk factors you may have.
If you’re pregnant, your chance of having a stroke while you’re expecting is pretty rare – stroke affects only three out of 10,000 U.S. women per year. But preeclampsia, or high blood pressure that occurs during pregnancy, can double your risk for stroke later in life. Women with hypertension before pregnancy or during a previous pregnancy should take low-dose aspirin every day after their first trimester to lower their stroke risk. Certain women may need to take medications to lower blood pressure, as well. And whether or not you’re expecting a baby, you should keep your blood pressure under control to help reduce your stroke risk.
“Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) was once the most commonly prescribed treatment for menopause, but it is now known that it can increase the risk of heart attack, blood clots, stroke and breast cancer,” says Karen E. Knapp, MD, of HCA Virginia. However, HRT is still the leading way to treat menopause symptoms, and its benefits may outweigh the risks for some women. Currently, most experts say it’s safe to take the lowest-effective dose for short-term therapy. Talk to your doctor to find out if HRT is safe for you.
It’s well known that sugary-sweet soda pop can cause weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and even heart disease. But a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was the first to discover the link between sodas and stroke. The study, which analyzed soda consumption in men and women found that the risk of stroke was 16% higher in people who drank one more sugar-sweetened or diet sodas per day, compared to those who had none. Looking for an alternate beverage? Swapping soda for decaf coffee cuts stroke risk by 10%.
“Women [tend to have] higher rates of migraines, which can increase stroke risk,” says Lori Noorollah, MD, of Centerpoint Medical Center in Independence, MO. More specifically, the risk occurs if the migraine is accompanied by an aura, which could be a visual disturbance, a pins and needles sensation and/or numbness. Migraine without aura is not associated with an increased risk of stroke. If you have a migraine with an aura, you can lower your stroke risk by keeping your weight in check, controlling your blood pressure, exercising regularly, and avoiding birth control pills, HRT and smoking.
About 15% of people with strokes have atrial fibrillation (Afib), a condition in which the top chambers of the heart beat irregularly. While women tend to develop Afib later than men, they are more likely to have a stroke and die because of it. “It’s like the edges of a stream or river where the water flow isn’t fast, you can see that it swirls around and becomes more still,” says Charles Joyner, MD, of HCA Virginia, “When this happens, the blood can thicken and form a clot, which resides in the atrium…that clot can break free and enter other organs, such as the brain, causing a stroke.” Learn about Afib treatment options from Dr. Joyner.