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Some risk factors are preventable

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in women and the fifth leading cause of death in men. Each year, about 55,000 more women have strokes than men.

While the exact reasons more women are affected by stroke are still unclear, doctors have some clues.

“One reason more women may have strokes than men is simply that they live longer,” said Christopher Cummings, MD, stroke and vascular neurologist at Geisinger. “Your stroke risk increases as you age, so there’s a higher chance that the woman in your life could experience a stroke.”

There are a number of risk factors that are more common in women, such as migraine with aura, autoimmune conditions, and fibromuscular dysplasia. Some risks pertain specifically to women, including:

  • Taking birth control pills
  • Being pregnant, especially during the final months of pregnancy and immediately following giving birth
  • Using hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Signs and symptoms can be unique
“What complicates strokes in women is that they may experience some unusual signs and symptoms, which means that they may see early signs as something much less serious,” said Dr. Cummings.

Some unique, and less common symptoms of stroke would include:

  • Hiccups
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion, disorientation or a sudden change in behavior
  • Seizures, fainting or loss of consciousness
  • Headache, especially behind one eye
  • Neck pain, especially on one side

In addition to those unique effects of a stroke, women may experience stroke symptoms more commonly seen in both men and women, including: 

  • Sudden numbness in the face, arm or leg, primarily on one side of the body
  • Difficulty speaking, including slurred speech or trouble finding words
  • Blurred vision or trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking or problems with dizziness or balance

“The key with more common symptoms is that each of these signs happens suddenly. That’s when you know it’s time to get emergency care,” said Dr. Cummings.

Preventing strokes in women
Some risk factors for strokes aren’t preventable, like your family history or your age. They’re also more prevalent in African Americans, Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders. But there are some lifestyle factors that you can do something about.

Eating your fair share of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, seafood and healthy oils can help you prevent stroke, as well as addressing high blood pressure, heart disease and other health issues. You should also limit saturated fats and stay away from trans fats, added sodium and added sugar.

Exercising regularly, whether it’s a brisk walk, swimming or running, can also reduce your risk of stroke. The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, five days a week.

Being a non-smoker and limiting alcohol can also help you prevent a stroke. Smoking doubles your risk for stroke compared to nonsmokers because it raises your blood pressure. So does drinking alcohol, which has been linked to stroke in research studies. Women should limit alcohol to one drink per day to reduce their risk of a stroke.

Even with taking preventive measures, about 795,000 people have a stroke each year. If you experience any of the signs or symptoms of stroke, it’s important to act fast.

“Getting treatment for a stroke within three hours of the first symptoms improves the effectiveness, so it’s important to call 911 as soon as possible,” said Dr. Cummings.

Christopher Cummings, MD, is director of stroke at Geisinger. To schedule an appointment, please call 570-271-6590.



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