Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

Just a few weeks ago, 80-year-old Maria Gonzalez was found on the floor of her home unable to move. “I just remember losing all sense of control,” Gonzalez explains. “I felt dizzy at first, and then I wasn’t able to control how I felt or what I was doing.”

After being taken to a local hospital, Gonzalez was informed that she had a stroke.

In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Gonzalez – 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. In Texas, 48,103 women have suffered from strokes in the past eight years according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 2017 Annual Report.

“I was shocked when the doctor told me I had a stroke,” Gonzalez says. “I would take care of myself by taking my medications and would keep myself moving around keeping up with my grandchildren. I found out the hard way, unfortunately, that there’s more to it than that.”

Gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Joseph Camero, Medical Director of Laredo 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 men do, 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 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,” Camero says.

After her initial treatment, Gonzalez was transferred to Laredo Rehabilitation Hospital for continued care where she is still receiving rehabilitation to help her recover, which includes daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

Gonzalez’s family can see a tremendous improvement in her. She is more alert, mobile, and is now able to feed herself. “Your body will tell you that you’re too weak; that you can’t do it,” Gonzalez says. “But once the therapist comes, bringing incredible motivation and encouragement, I’m constantly surprised with how much I can accomplish.”

The Gonzalez family has taken the challenge upon themselves to help spread the awareness of stroke risk factors to their friends and community. Gonzalez says that she will keep this experience as a daily reminder to count her blessings and to help others be informed about the risks and symptoms of stroke so that they may be better prepared.

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