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Know your risk; know the signs

You may be familiar with BE FAST, an acronym to help determine if someone is having a stroke. BE FAST stands for balance difficulties, eyesight changes, facial droop, arms that drift down when raised, slurred speech and time. If you notice any of these signs in someone, it’s important to call 911 immediately.

Yes, it’s vitally important to know the signs of a stroke. But it’s also important to know that women are at a higher risk of having strokes than men, and one in five women will have a stroke at some point in their life.

“A stroke happens when there is a blood clot in the brain,” said Clemens Schirmer, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Geisinger. “The clot stops blood from getting to the rest of the brain, which can cause paralysis; aphasia, which is an impaired ability to speak; fatigue and death. While both men and women should be concerned about strokes, some reports say that 60 percent of people who die of a stroke women, so it’s especially important for women to manage their risk.”

Here are some of the factors that make women are more susceptible to strokes. 

Hormonal birth control
“Hormonal birth control methods like the birth control pill, IUDs and patches are all helpful for regulating hormone levels and preventing pregnancy,” said Dr. Schirmer. “But one of the side effects of birth control is blood clots, which can form anywhere in the body. This can cause deep vein thrombosis and stroke.”

According to the CDC, approximately 23 percent of women use hormonal birth control, and while blood clots are not common, they are still a potential side effect that increases the overall risk of stroke in women.

If you’re on birth control, you can lower your risk of clots by quitting smoking. Smoking significantly increases your risk of developing clots.

If you’re pregnant, you most likely are not thinking about the possibility of having a stroke during pregnancy. However, it is possible, and the risk appears to be more prevalent than in the past. Between two and 70 out of every 10,000 women have a stroke while pregnant. Approximately 10 percent of strokes happen before delivery, 40 percent during delivery and the remaining 50 percent happen up to six weeks after delivery.

“Some experts believe that because a lot of blood is lost in labor, the body tries to compensate by increasing clotting,” said Dr. Schirmer. “Unfortunately, this also increases the likelihood of stroke.”

You can lower your risk of stroke during pregnancy by addressing lifestyle issues. Before getting pregnant, stop smoking. Make sure to get regular physical exercise and eat a healthy diet to manage your weight—high blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels all increase your risk of a stroke during pregnancy.  

Migraines with aura
While there are many different types of migraine headaches, migraines with aura, also known as ocular migraines, cause visual phenomena such as flashing lights, shooting stars and psychedelic patterns. And they’re also associated with stroke.

Doctors are unsure why migraines with aura are associated with a higher risk of stroke in both men and women. However, migraines are three times more common for women than they are for men.

Preeclampsia is a type of high blood pressure caused by pregnancy. Like normal high blood pressure, preeclampsia can increase your risk of stroke. In fact, The Preeclampsia Foundation estimates that it may double a woman’s risk of stroke. 

Your doctor and OB-GYN should already be monitoring your blood pressure during pregnancy to catch preeclampsia. If doctors find that you have preeclampsia, they are able to treat it with medications. Giving birth is the only way to “cure” preeclampsia. 

How you can lower your risk
While some risk factors for stroke such as genetics and sex are out of your control, there plenty of lifestyle changes you can make lower your risk of stroke.

You can reduce your risk by:

“One of the best ways to avoid a stroke is to have regular checkups with your doctor,” said Dr. Schirmer. “They can point out any risk factors that you might have and help you come up with ideas to manage them.”

Dr. Clemens Schirmer, M.D., is a neurosurgeon at Geisinger. For more information, call 800-275-6401.

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