Understanding Women and Stroke

  • Stroke is the third leading cause of death for women (in comparison, stroke is the fifth leading cause of death for men). 
  • Each year 55,000 more women have a stroke than men. Because in general women live longer than men, stroke will have a more negative impact on their lives. 
  • More women will:
    • Live alone when they have a stroke
    • Be more likely to live in a long term health care facility after a stroke
    • Have a worse recovery after a stroke

Common Stroke Symptoms

  • It is important to learn the many warning signs of a stroke so you will be able to recognize them if one or more happens to you or a loved one. Once you know the signs, it is extremely important to recognize them and get to the hospital immediately when the first symptoms appear. You may be tempted to downplay your symptoms and not want to go to the hospital.  This is normal, but instead you need to get to a hospital where experts are trained in diagnose treatment and can make the difference between life and death. 
  • Remember that the key to identifying these symptoms is that they come on very suddenly. 
  • Common Stroke Symptoms include:
  • 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 in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Unique Symptoms in Women

  • Women may report symptoms that are different from the common symptoms. They can include:
  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
  • General weakness
  • Difficulty or shortness of breath
  • Confusion, unresponsiveness or disorientation
  • Sudden behavioral change
  • Agitation
  • Hallucination
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Hiccups
  • Unique symptoms create a problem, as they are often not recognized as a stroke symptom and treatment is often delayed. The most effective stroke treatments are only available if the stroke is recognized and diagnosed within the first three hours of the first symptoms.

Unique Risk Factors in Women

  • One way you can improve your odds for not having a stroke is to learn about the lifestyle changes and if necessary, medications, you can take to lower your stroke risk. In addition to the general risk factors like family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise, and being overweight, as a woman you are faced with unique risk factors which include:
  • Taking birth control pills. The greatest concern about using oral contraceptives is for women with additional risk factors, such as age, cigarette smoking, high blood pressure or diabetes. Women should be screened for high blood pressure prior to starting a birth control regimen.
  • Being pregnant. Stroke risk increases during a normal pregnancy due to natural changes in the body such as increased blood pressure and stress on the heart. Women who are pregnant should monitor their blood pressure during and after pregnancy to lower the risk of stroke.
  • Using Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), a combined hormone therapy of progestin and estrogen, to relieve menopausal symptoms.
  • Suffering from migraine headaches with aura. Migraines can increase a woman's stroke risk two and a half times, and most people in the U.S. who suffer migraines are women. Women who experience migraines with aura and smoke are advised to stop smoking immediately.
  • High blood pressure is a risk factor for both women and men. However, the effect is stronger in women especially when you add in the risk factor of taking birth control pills. Women can start to see high blood pressure even in their 20s so get checked out, review your family history, and stay on top of it. 
  • Preeclampsia is a condition marked by high blood pressure that sets in after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In addition to its effect on stroke risk (amplified by increased clotting during pregnancy), it can be life threatening for both mother and baby. Preeclampsia is sometimes brought on by gestational diabetes, a form of the disease that can come on suddenly in the middle of pregnancy.
  • Atrial fibrillation. This erratic fluttering of the top chambers of the heart impedes movement of blood into the lower chambers, which pump it to the rest of the body. The blood can collect in the atria, and still blood can clot. It is a strong risk factor for stroke that effects both sexes, but is more concerning in women.
  • Loneliness and depression. Depression and “psychosocial stress,” such as social isolation, work stress, or discrimination, are associated with high blood pressure which is one of the biggest risk factors for stroke. They impact women's risk more than men's.  

Remember to be aware of the signs, symptoms, and risk factors of stroke that are unique to women. Each year stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer! This fact is widely unknown among the general public! Some studies have found that women are less knowledgeable about the risk factors and don’t tend to perceive themselves at risk for stroke.  We hope this information helped your understanding of women and stroke!