Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

Seventy-two-year-old retiree, Judy Pace of League City, Texas, spent much of her time reading, being outdoors and gardening. When Pace started to feel a little dizzy, she thought that maybe it was due to gardening out in the sun for too long. It wasn’t until a family member found her unconscious one day after work that concerns were heightened. Pace was quickly taken to the hospital where she was informed that she had a stroke.

In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Pace – often unknowingly – take the lead in: About 55,000 more women than men have strokes every year. Strokes kill more women than men annually, making it the #3 leading cause of death in women.

“I couldn’t believe it when the doctor said she had a stroke,” says Anna Jentsch, daughter of Judy Pace. “It’s one of those things you hear about but never think that it’ll actually happen to someone so close to you.”

Gender misconception about stroke is common, according to Dr. Joseph Fyans, Medical Director of Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital. “Most people don’t realize that women suffer strokes more frequently than men,” he says. “If you’re a woman, you share a lot of the same risk factors for strokes as a man, but a woman’s risk also is influenced by hormones, reproductive health, pregnancy, childbirth and other gender-related factors.”

For example, birth control pills may double the risk of stroke, especially in women with high blood pressure or women who smoke. And, according to the American Heart Association, hormone replacement therapy – once thought to reduce stroke risk – in fact, actually increases it.

A recent study shared through the National Stroke Association listed the following factors to have been found to increase stroke risk in women:

  • Menstruation before the age of 10
  • Menopause before the age of 45
  • Low levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS)
  • Taking oral estrogen or combined oral contraceptives

The study also showed that a history of pregnancy complications can also indicate higher stroke risk. These problems include gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during or immediately after pregnancy.

“Add this to other general risk factors for stroke like family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, lack of exercise, and being overweight – and it becomes clearer as to why women can be more at risk for stroke than men,” Fyans says.

For Pace, she was lucky to have been taken to a local hospital quickly after her stroke. Being aware of stroke symptoms can drastically help in the recovery phase. After being treated at a local hospital for initial stroke care, Pace was transferred to Northern Utah Rehabilitation Hospital where she was enrolled in their nationally accredited Stroke Program and spent two weeks receiving rehabilitation to help her recover.  Her rehabilitation program was tailored to her specific needs and included physical, occupational, and speech therapies as well as rehabilitation nursing and extensive stroke education, all overseen by her rehabilitation physician, Dr. Fyans.

“Mom has come a long way,” Jentsch says. “When she was first admitted, she could barely move on her own. But now, she is able to walk and even use stairs. Her speech is starting to come back, too. We have all been very happy with how caring and friendly the staff has been, and I know Mom is extremely proud of how far she has come since her stroke.”  Twenty days after Pace arrived, she was able to walk out of the hospital with the staff and her family surrounding her and cheering her on.

Jentsch took her mother’s incident as a wake-up call for herself. She says that she now knows more about strokes and will share the information she has learned with others. She is now more aware of her daily habits and tries to incorporate a more active lifestyle.

“Whatever stage of life a woman is in, it’s important that she be aware of all the risk factors of stroke,” Fyans says. “As it’s often said, ‘knowledge is power.’ And in this case, the more knowledgeable a woman is about her stroke risk factors, the more she’ll be able to understand how she can be affected and work with her physician or healthcare provider as appropriate to reduce them.”