Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

When 52-year-old Agnes Dorean Padilla of Las Cruces first felt a warm sensation over her left side of her body, she thought it was because of a headache she had all day. But when the sensation did not stop and the left side of her body went numb, she knew it was more serious. Her husband drove her to the emergency room.

After being taken to a local hospital, Padilla was told that she had a hemorrhagic stroke.

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

“I was able to do everything for myself before having a stroke,” Padilla says. “I worked full-time and exercised three times per week. I was shocked and confused that I was having a stroke.”

This gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Kimberly Encapera, Medical Director at Rehabilitation Hospital of Southern New Mexico. “Most people don’t realize that women suffer strokes more frequently than men,” she 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, child-birth 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 these factors that have been found to increase stroke risk in women:

  • Menstruation before the age of 10
  • Menopause before age 45
  • Low levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS)
  • Taking oral estrogen or combined oral contraceptives

The study also showed 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,” Encapera says.

For Padilla, being aware of her symptoms helped her get the care she needed quickly, which ultimately aided in her recovery. After being treated at a local hospital for initial stroke care, she was transferred to Rehabilitation Hospital of Southern New Mexico where she spent 20 days receiving rehabilitation to help her recover, which included daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy.

“It was a blessing,” Padilla says. “I went into the rehabilitation hospital not able to move my left arm and hand or talk clearly. I was really scared. Then three weeks later, I could not only talk, but I began to move the left side of my body. I felt so much love and support from all the staff and doctors. When I left the hospital the staff was all in the lobby cheering for me, I felt so much love.”

Padilla says she now knows more about strokes and will share the information she has learned with others – especially her female friends.

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