Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

Seventy-six-year-old retiree, Rita Price of Rutherfordton, N.C., woke up around 2:30 a.m. one morning not feeling well. She noticed that her balance was off and her words turned to mumbles as she called for help. Her friend quickly rushed by her side and called an ambulance.

After being admitted to a local hospital, it was confirmed that Price had suffered a stroke.

In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Price – 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.

“To say I was surprised about having a stroke is an understatement,” Price says. “I never thought it would happen to me.”

Gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Timothy Murphree, Medical Director of Spartanburg Rehabilitation Institute. “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 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,” Murphree says.

For Price, being aware of her symptoms helped her get the care she needed quickly, which ultimately aided in her recovery. After being treated for initial stroke care a local hospital, Price was transferred to Spartanburg Rehabilitation Institute where she spent 30 days receiving rehabilitation to help her recover, which included daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

“When I was first admitted to the hospital, I couldn’t speak or even swallow,” Price says. “I had to have a feeding tube so that I could get the nutrition I needed. I remember being so scared. But the staff kept me motivated; everyone was so kind and helpful. My most memorable moments were when I first spoke again, and also the day I could swallow again. The food tasted so good!”

Before the incident, Price was completely independent with everything. She mostly enjoyed being outdoors and gardening. “I take every day as a blessing,” Price says, who is now able to walk with the help of a cane. “I can eat whatever I want now. I can walk again. But the best thing is that I made it back home to my family.”

“Whatever stage of life a woman is in, it’s important that she be aware of all the risk factors of stroke,” Murphree 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.”