Women face different risks for stroke

LOS ANGELES At age 38, Nicole Reeder had a massive stroke.

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"I think the most profound loss I have is adding and subtracting. I was valedictorian of my class, math and physics," said Nicole.

Doctors said she'd never walk again.

"Nobody is going to tell me I'm not going to walk again, you know. They are telling the wrong person," said Nicole.

Neurologist George Levy says some risk factors for stroke are unique to women -- like pregnancy.

"That's because there is a higher plasma volume - blood volume - in pregnancy," explained neurologist Dr. George Levy. "There's also a higher risk for thrombosis."

Birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy also raise a woman's risk. Migraines can increase the risk because of their effect on the brain.

"The blood vessels constrict to sometimes a point where the tissue can't get enough blood supply, and of course that's the definition of a stroke," said Dr. Levy.

Post-menopausal women with high triglycerides and a waist larger than 35 inches have a five-fold increased stroke risk.

"The focus definitely ought to be on prevention and early treatment," said Dr. Levy.

Stroke symptoms unique to women include sudden face and limb pain, hiccups, nausea, chest pain and shortness of breath.

Doctors think birth control pills, especially after 35, played a role in Nicole's stroke.

"Life is going to hand you lemons, but what are they going to be? Nobody ever knows," said Nicole.

Today, Nicole struggles with her left hand, simple math and memory. But she is walking, thanks to sheer determination.

For more information:

Background: According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the third-leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer. In the United States, stroke is a leading cause of serious, long-term disability. About 5.8 million people are living today who have suffered a stroke. While 2.3 million of those stroke survivors are men, 3.4 million are women. The latest statistics show women account for more stroke deaths than men -- about 60.8 percent of deaths.

Risk factors for women: While many risk factors for stroke are the same for men and women -- like family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, weight and sedentary lifestyle -- there are several, lesser-known risk factors for women that are not often talked about. They include:

  • Birth Control Pills: Taking birth control pills, especially after age 35, raises the risk of stroke. If you're on them, it's important to keep both cholesterol and blood pressure normal. One study shows women who take even a low-estrogen birth control pill may be twice as likely to have a stroke than women who don't.
  • Baby Bumps: Stroke risk increases naturally during pregnancy due to natural changes in the body. George Levy, M.D., from Coral Springs Medical Center in Florida says stroke is more common in pregnancy because: "There's a higher plasma volume -- blood volume -- in pregnancy. There's also a higher risk for thrombosis."
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy: The combined therapy of progestin and estrogen for post- menopausal women raises stroke risk.
  • Weight Concerns: Post-menopausal women who have a waist larger than 35.2 inches and a triglyceride level higher than 128 mg/liter may have a five-fold increased risk of stroke.
  • Got Headaches? Migraine headaches can raise a woman's stroke risk. Most people in the United States who suffer from migraine headaches are women.
  • Heart Defects: Women are more likely to suffer from mitral valve prolapse -- a condition in which the valve tends to prolapse into the chambers of the heart as it pumps. Having this condition raises the risk of stroke.
  • Clotting Disorders: Women who have had more than one miscarriage may have a higher risk of blood clots, which can increase their risk of stroke.

WARNING! Some stroke warning signs are common for both men and women. These include sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg -- especially on one side of the body -- sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding, sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination and/or sudden, severe headache with no known cause. Symptoms that are unique to women include:

  • Sudden face and limb pain
  • Sudden hiccups
  • Sudden general weakness
  • Sudden chest pain
  • Sudden palpitations
  • Sudden nausea
  • Sudden shortness of breath


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