Women are at a much greater risk for stroke than men, but there are steps women can take to lower their chances of having a stroke, according to new guidelines released by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association on Thursday.
In the first study from the two health organizations that focused on the causes of stroke and stroke prevention for women, researchers found that women have a higher risk for stroke because of high blood pressure during pregnancy, hormonal changes from birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy, migraines combined with smoking, and an irregular heartbeat that is more common in older women.
During pregnancy, an estimated six to 10 percent of women develop preeclampsia, a dramatic increase in blood pressure. This spike in blood pressure doubles the chances of a stroke and quadruples the likelihood of high blood pressure.
“Women who may think of themselves as very healthy may have this little blip of vascular disease during their childbearing years. What happens during those years is extremely important,” said Cheryl Bushnell, M.D., who chaired the Forest Baptist Medical Center who chaired the committee that wrote the guidelines.
The researchers recommended a number of steps that women can take to lower their risk of a stroke. For example, women should be tested for high blood pressure prior to taking oral contraceptives. Women should also not smoke, since smoking greatly increases the risk of stroke especially when combined with birth control pills. The guidelines also suggested that medical professionals develop a “risk score” for women focusing on these sex-specific factors that can identify those women who are at a high risk for stroke.
Identifying the risk factors specific to women is essential, argued the researchers, since strokes disproportionately affect women. Strokes are the third-leading cause of death for women, and the fifth-leading cause of death among men. One in five women will have a stroke and each year 55,000 more women have strokes compared to men.
“Until sex-specific risk is better understood, prevention and management of stroke and cardiovascular risk factors remains essentially the same for men and women,” wrote the researchers.