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Why women have a higher risk of stroke than men

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in women, and that 1 in 5 women between 55 and 75 are at risk for stroke. KERA’s Sam Baker talked with Dr. Claudia Perez, a neuro-intensivist with Texas Health Physicians Group, about why the risk is so high for women.

Why the risk of stroke is higher for women

The lifetime prevalence of stroke is higher in women because women tend to live longer. And while women share a lot of the same risk factors that men have, there are some additional risk factors that come with being a woman for stroke. 

For women who have high blood pressure and are pregnant, there is an increased risk of stroke. Things like using oral contraceptive pills earlier in life and then later in life using hormone replacement therapies after menopause can put you at an increased risk factor for stroke. 

Symptoms of a stroke 

The acronym that's most helpful to remember is BE-FAST:

  • B for balance,
  • E for eyesight problems,
  • a Facial droop,
  • Arm weakness
  • or any Slurred speech
  • and T for time.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it's very important that you get somebody to the emergency room right away. 
Are many women aware of that risk or of the signs when it happens?

Sometimes for women, the typical presentation may not be the same. A woman may describe something like disorientation, you know, memory problems, just feeling just generalized, weak, or confused. And so sometimes the presentation is a little bit different in a woman.

Julie Chin, a TV anchor in Oklahoma, recently experienced symptoms on-air and had no idea what was happening. 

What seemed to have occurred to her was she had a transient ischemic attack as a precursor for possibly a stroke. It's a temporary lack of flow to a part of the brain. You have this moment in which you lose function, but then you're okay afterward.

When that occurs, is it a signal that a stroke could happen later?

It's a pre-warning that something else may be coming, and it's really hard to tell whether you're going to progress to a full-blown stroke or if it was just a warning sign that you need to address some of the risk factors for having a full-blown stroke.

It's something that needs to be evaluated in the emergency room as quickly as possible to ensure that you don't progress to full stroke, or if you are progressing, that you're in a center where therapies can be offered to prevent disability from a stroke.

What about care after?

After the hospital, it's really focusing on the risk factors for having a recurrent event. A lot of it is going to revolve around lifestyle modification and ensuring you understand what your risk is for stroke

How preventable is a stroke? 

Some estimates show up to 80%.

We have preventable modifiable risk factors that can be addressed to help prevent a stroke:

One is understanding your risk and knowing whether you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or cholesterol.

It's important to make sure that you're controlling those disease states, making sure you're within the normal range for those conditions, and making sure you're being seen by your primary care doctor.

Other things they can help with are things like eating healthy, exercise, and ensuring your BMI or weight is where it needs to be.

RESOURCES:

A News Anchor Had Stroke Symptoms on Air. Her Colleagues Jumped Into Action.

CDC: Women and Stroke

American Stroke Association: Women and Stroke

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.