Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

When 76-year-old Judy Gray of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho first felt dizzy, she thought she was just tired and needed to lie down. However, once her body fell limp and her vision and speech became impaired, Gray knew it was something more serious. Her husband quickly called 911 and Gray was taken to a local hospita.

Once she was admitted, Gray was told that she had suffered a stroke.

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

“It never crossed my mind that I was having a stroke,” Gray says. “My family has no history of stroke, and I live an active life. I had always been more concerned with my husband’s health than my own.”

Gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Steve Foster, Associate Medical Director of Rehabilitation Hospital of the Northwest. “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 men, but a woman’s risk is also 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, found that the following factors are linked 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,” Foster says.

“Looking back, I have experienced some stroke-like symptoms before,” Gray says. “I thought it was just my cataracts, but now I know.” Being aware of stroke symptoms plays a major role in getting the help needed, which ultimately aids in the recovery process. After initial treatment, Gray was transferred to Rehabilitation Hospital of the Northwest where she spent two weeks receiving rehabilitation to help her recover, which included daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

Gray has made tremendous progress in her road to recovery. Her vision is restored, she can easily walk up stairs again, and she even hopes to return to the golf course soon. She says, “I would not have been able to progress as well as I have if it weren’t for the team and therapy I received while at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Northwest.”

With a family full of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, Gray has made it her personal mission to inform those she loves about stroke risk; especially since she has five granddaughters and three great-granddaughters.

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