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Women and Stroke: How Risk Factors Differ Between Men and Women

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risk factors for stroke differ for men and women George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

What are little girls made of?

Sugar, and spice, and everything nice!

What are little boys made of?

Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails!

I always particularly liked this nursery rhyme for the simple fact that little girls were made of "everything nice!"

As the oldest of a large family and possessing not one -- not two -- but FOUR younger brothers, I had no difficulty believing that boys must indeed be made of snails, puppy dog tails, and a few other totally gross and unmentionable items!

Of course, while sugar-and-spice might not be a good description for my brothers, they actually can be incredibly nice at times.

The nursery rhymes serves to make an important point -- boys and girls, men and women are not the same.

Gender makes a difference. One area where gender plays a crucial role is our health.

The month of May is American Stroke Month, sometimes referred to as National Stroke Awareness Month. Regardless of what you call it, May is a time set aside to specifically focus on education and raising awareness about stroke.

While many women may be generally aware of stroke risk factors, many may not be aware that gender plays a role. Women face numerous unique risk factors for strokes which our male counterparts simply don’t have to worry about.

Here, we’ll take a quick look at what we have in common with men, and more importantly, what we don’t have in common.

Common Gender Neutral Risk Factors
High blood pressure is the major cause of stroke for both men and women. The American Heart Association has identified seven top risk factors for high blood pressure and stroke.

They are family history, age, gender related risk patterns, lack of physical activity, poor diet, overweight, and consuming too much alcohol. All of these risk factors are common to both men and women.

• Family history: A family history of high blood pressure increases your risk.

• Age: Age increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.

• Gender: Gender plays a role in the development of high blood pressure.

Before age 45, high blood pressure is more common in men than women. This trend evens out between the ages of 45 and 64 years. However, after age 64, the rate of high blood greatly increases in women.

Lack of Physical Activity
Getting enough exercise not only lowers your blood pressure but improves your overall health as well.

Poor Diet
Diets which are high in salt contribute to high blood pressure and may cause unhealthy fluid retention which may over-stress your heart. Limit salt intake to less than 1500 mg per day.

Excess weight not only contributes to high blood pressure, but raises cholesterol levels and puts undue stress on the heart muscle. Even small weight losses of 10 to 20 pounds can pay off big in terms of lower blood pressure and reducing your stroke risk.

Alcohol Consumption
Too much alcohol consumption on a daily basis increases blood pressure. Men should consume no more than two drinks a day while women should limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day.

While not identified as one of the top seven by the American Heart Association, high cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes are also gender neutral risk factors for stroke.

Risk Factors Unique to Women
In addition to the common stroke risk factors, there are several conditions which affect women only and which increase our risk for stroke.

These unique women only risk factors include:

The Pill
That’s right. Birth control pills increase a woman’s risk of stroke.

Not only can pregnancy be stressful emotionally, but it plays havoc on the body. While the changes that occur as a result of pregnancy are entirely natural, these changes may result in higher blood pressure and an increase in stress on the heart.

Hormone Replacement Therapy or HRT
HRT is prescribed for many menopausal women to help manage the symptoms. HRT increases the risk of stroke.

Waist Circumference with High Triglycerides
A thick waist combined with high triglyceride levels may increase the risk of stroke. Some studies suggest that post-menopausal women who have a waist larger than 32 ½ inches, combined with triglycerides over 128 milligrams per liter, gave a risk factor for stroke which is five times greater than others.

Women who suffer migraines are at an increased risk of stroke. Some estimates indicate that women migraine sufferers have a stroke risk that is three to six times greater than those without migraines.

Currently, heart disease is the Number One killer in the United States, with stroke following at Number Four. Everyone needs to know their risk factors and to take action to reduce their stroke risk.

In addition, women face unique stroke risk factors. It’s important for women to know what these unique risk factors are and how they may impact their health and stroke risk.


Women and Stroke: Women’s Stroke Risk. National Stroke Association. 2012. http://www.stroke.org/site/PageServer?pagename=WOMRISK

Women and Stroke: Unique Symptoms in Women. National Stroke Association. 2012.

Top Contributing factors to High Blood Pressure – know your risk. American Heart Association. 01 May 2012.

Reviewed May 2, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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