Only about one in ten women can correctly identify female-specific risks for stroke, according to a national survey released by Ohio State University (OSU) Wexner Medical Center. That’s concerning, given that stroke is the third leading cause of death in American women and the top cause of long-term disability, reports the National Stroke Foundation.
“What women don’t know about stroke could kill them,” Dr. Diana Greene-Chandos, a neurologist and director of neuroscience critical care at OSU Wexler Medical Center, wrote in a new report about the survey findings.
About 795,000 Americans suffer strokes each year–one every 40 seconds. And while many women consider stroke a greater threat to men, the opposite is true. About 60 percent of stroke deaths occur in women, according to the American Stroke Association.
Here are key facts women should know about their risk for stroke–and how they can take action to reduce it.
- Women have unique stroke risks. These include pregnancy, taking birth control pills, using hormone replacement therapy, and suffering from migraine headaches with aura, which can more than double women’s stroke risk. The OSU survey found that only 11 percent of women could identify these factors or lupus as female-specific stroke threats. Up to 20 percent of people with lupus, an autoimmune disease that is ten times more common in women than in men, experience at least one stroke, with younger patients being at particularly high risk, according to a paper published in Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.
- Rates of stroke in younger adults have soared. While many women think of stroke as mainly a menace to the elderly, a 2012 study reported that the proportion of strokes occurring in people under age 55 has escalated from 12.9 percent in 1993/1994 to 18.6 percent in 2005. That’s a rise of about 44 percent, a trend of great public health concern due to the potential for a greater lifetime burden of disability if stroke occurs at a younger age, the researchers reported in the journal Neurology.
- Chronic inflammation can nearly triple stroke risk. In a 2014 multi-ethnic study of 3,298 adults who were tracked for nearly eight years, those with the highest levels of the inflammatory biomarker high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) were 2.5 times more likely to suffer a stroke, after adjustment for potential confounding factors. Many other peer-reviewed studies have shown that elevated blood levels of inflammatory biomarkers–such as hsCRP, myeloperoxidase (MPO), and lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2 (Lp-PLA2) independently predict risk for cardiovascular disease or associated events, such as heart attacks and strokes. Inflammation levels can be checked with simple blood and urine tests.
- Reducing systolic blood pressure to 120 mm Hg can be “lifesaving.” That’s the conclusion of a landmark clinical trial involving more than 9,300 people ages 50 and older with high blood pressure. Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the trial was halted early after researchers discovered that treating hypertensive patients to achieve systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) of 120 mm Hg reduced cardiovascular events, such as heart failure, heart attack and stroke, by nearly one-third, and death by almost one-fourth, compared to reducing it to 140 mm Hg. The findings are expected to motivate more aggressive treatment of high blood pressure, which affects 70 million Americans, only half of whom have the condition under control, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
- 80 percent of strokes are preventable. High blood pressure is the leading culprit, quadrupling stroke risk in people under the age of 80, according to National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Among the best ways to control blood pressure—and reduce stroke risk—are weight loss, cutting down on salt, eating more fruits and vegetables, and increasing exercise. Medication may also be advised if you have hypertension. If you smoke, here’s more motivation to kick the habit: It doubles risk for ischemic stroke (the most common type of stroke) and quadruples risk for hemorrhagic stroke. Discuss your stroke risk factors and how to reduce them with your medical provider.