4 Things Women Need to Know About Stroke

Stroke happens to 1 in 5 women. In the United States, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds. This is unfortunate because most strokes are preventable. 

Dr. Cheryl BushnellStroke happens when blood flow to the brain stops or is blocked, which causes brain cells to die. There are two types of stroke: One is caused by a blood clot, and the other happens when a blood vessel breaks and causes bleeding in the brain. The brain is complex, so not all strokes look alike, but symptoms can come on suddenly. Stroke is a serious health concern for women and can happen to anyone, at any age.

Here are four things every woman should know about stroke. 

  1. Women have unique risk factors for stroke. Major risk factors for stroke, such as having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, can happen to anyone. But women have unique risk factors for stroke, including:  
  • Having problems during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia or high blood pressure. These complications can increase the risk of stroke for many years, even beyond childbearing years.
  • Smoking cigarettes while taking combination birth control (birth control that has both estrogen and progesterone). Women 35 and older who smoke and use this type of birth control are at especially high risk.
  • Taking hormone replacement therapy that contains estrogen plus progesterone. Ask your doctor if you can safely take these medicines to ease menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes.
  • Having migraines with aura, or migraines that start with visual symptoms before the headache.
  • Having atrial fibrillation (Afib), a type of irregular heart beat that can cause blood clots to form in the heart. This is more common in women, especially in women older than 75. It is important to know if you have Afib so your doctor can give you medicine to prevent blood clots.
  1. You can learn the common symptoms of stroke with the F.A.S.T. test:
  • Face: Is one side of the person’s face drooping?
  • Arm weakness: Is one arm weak or numb? Try lifting the person’s arms to see if one drifts down or cannot be lifted.
  • Speech: Is she having trouble speaking, such as slurring words, or is she not able to get the right words out?
  • Time: Call 911 right away if someone is experiencing any of these symptoms! Every minute counts when it comes to your brain.

Other common symptoms include numbness and tingling on one side of the body; vision loss or trouble seeing; severe dizziness, vertigo, or loss of balance; or sudden severe headache. Women are also more likely to have unique symptoms that can slow down or delay a stroke diagnosis, such as difficulty thinking straight or being excessively sleepy. When these symptoms happen, even when common stroke symptoms are also present, doctors and emergency providers might not think of stroke right away.

  1. Acting quickly during a stroke improves chances of survival and making a full recovery. F.A.S.T. is not just an acronym; it’s also an important action: Act F.A.S.T. when a stroke happens because treatments need to happen right away. Call 911 if you think you are or someone near you is having a stroke.

Do not go to sleep to see if the symptoms improve, drive yourself to the hospital or have someone else drive you, or call your doctor’s office. All of these actions can delay needed stroke treatment. Just call 911 right away.

  1. You can take steps to prevent stroke. The best way to treat stroke is to prevent it from happening in the first place! Here’s what you can do to lead a healthy life and prevent stroke:
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes a day.
  • Make healthy food choices most of the time. Learn more about healthy eating.
  • Know your numbers, including blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol levels. These numbers are clues about your risk of stroke. Talk to your doctor about your numbers and what they should be.
  • Don’t smoke. Your doctor can help you come up with a plan to quit.

Most strokes are preventable and treatable, and preventing stroke starts with knowledge! Talk to your doctor about your unique risks and what steps you can take to lower your risk. Learn more about stroke and how stroke affects women.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.