A stroke can strike anyone—no matter your age, ethnicity, or sex. There is no typical stroke victim. Yet women are slightly more likely than men to have a stroke and die from it. These troubling facts recently led health experts to compile the first female-focused guidelines for stroke prevention.
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association published guidelines on preventing stroke in women. They combed through years of past research to develop them. Their detailed review explains in part why women seem to fare worse when it comes to stroke.
A stroke happens when a part of your brain can’t get the blood it needs. A blood clot or bleeding in your brain can cause this serious health event. Certain factors can boost your chances of having a stroke. High blood pressure is one factor. This condition can make it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout your body.
Some risk factors are unique to women, though. For instance, hormonal changes can raise a woman’s risk for stroke. During pregnancy, some mothers-to-be may develop preeclampsia—a form of high blood pressure. Certain birth control pills can also put a woman at higher risk for stroke. This is especially true if she smokes and is older than 35.
Women—more than men—also tend to develop health problems that may lead to a stroke. These include obesity and atrial fibrillation (AF), a type of irregular heartbeat. People with AF are 4 to 5 times more likely to have a stroke. AF commonly afflicts older people, especially women, because they often live longer than men.
Not knowing the symptoms of a stroke may also work against women. In a recent survey, researchers asked more than 1,200 women about stroke. They found that only half correctly knew that sudden numbness in the face or a limb could mean a stroke. What’s more, only 1 out of 4 knew about less common signs of a stroke.
During a stroke, both men and women often report that the following appear suddenly:
Numbness or weakness in the face or limb, usually on 1 side of the body
Dizziness or loss of balance or coordination
Confusion and trouble speaking or understanding
Severe headache with no known cause
Women may also sometimes have hiccups, nausea, chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, and a racing heartbeat.
Knowing all these symptoms can save your life. It may also lower your risk for disability. Compared with men, women have a lower quality of life after a stroke. One recent study found women were more likely to have trouble moving and doing daily activities up to a year later.
If you suspect you or a loved one is having a stroke, call 911 right away. Time is essential for receiving lifesaving treatment. Learn more about how a stroke can damage your brain.
American Stroke Association
Office on Women's Health