Women and stroke: know the signs

May 09, 2022
5 min read


Nina Kephart, MSN, BSN, RN, Stroke and Sepsis Coordinator, Mount Nittany Health


Did you know that stroke is the third leading cause of death for American women? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 5 American women will have a stroke, and nearly 60 percent will die from the attack.

A stroke happens when a clot or broken blood vessel cuts off vital blood flow and oxygen to the brain, or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. In either case, strokes cause brain damage and abilities such as speech and movement, and memory can be lost.

For every minute without treatment for a stroke, almost two million brain cells die. For every hour without treatment, the brain loses almost the same number of cells as are lost through three and a half years of aging. When it comes to a stroke, every second counts, and that’s why it’s important to know and recognize the signs.

Signs of stroke for both men and women

Stroke treatments that work best are available only if the stroke is recognized and diagnosed within three hours of the first symptoms. By knowing the signs and symptoms of stroke, you can take quick action. Fast treatment can lessen the brain damage that stroke can cause. Call 9-1-1 right away if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Signs of stroke for women

Although men and women who have strokes often feel similar symptoms, women can also experience general weakness, disorientation and confusion or memory problems, fatigue, nausea, or vomiting. These signs of stroke in women can be subtle enough to be missed or brushed off. That can lead to delays in getting time-sensitive, lifesaving treatments, so it’s important not to ignore these symptoms. The key is to zero in on any symptom that is sudden and has no other explanation.

Why women are at higher risk for stroke

Several factors contribute to why women are more likely to have a stroke:

  • Pregnancy –The risk of stroke in pregnant women is 21 per 100,000, with the highest stroke risk during the third trimester and post-partum.
  • Preeclampsia – This is high blood pressure that develops during pregnancy. If you have any history of hypertension, talk to your healthcare provider about taking low-dose aspirin starting in the second trimester.
  • Birth control pills – Birth control pills have become much safer over time, but women who are already at risk of stroke should get screened for high blood pressure before the pill is prescribed.
  • Migraines with aura – Migraine with aura is associated with ischemic stroke in younger women, particularly if they smoke or use oral contraceptives.
  • Atrial fibrillation – This increases stroke risk among women over age 75 by 20 percent.

How can women decrease their risk of stroke?

In addition to practicing healthy habits such as exercise, healthy eating, and adequate sleep, here are measures all women can take to decrease their risk of stroke:

  • If pregnant, discuss with their healthcare provider low-dose aspirin guidelines starting in the second trimester to lower the risk of preeclampsia.

  • Get their blood pressure checked before taking birth control pills and monitor every six months.

  • Quit smoking, especially if they have migraines with aura.

  • Get screened for atrial fibrillation if over age 75.

Mount Nittany Medical Center’s Stroke Program is dedicated to optimizing the quality of life through coordinated, evidence-based best practice for stroke risk reduction and stroke interventions. Last year, Mount Nittany Medical Center cared for more than 450 patients who suffered a stroke. The Medical Center is an accredited Primary Stroke Center through The Joint Commission and received the American Heart Association & American Stroke Association 2020 Get with the Guidelines® Stroke Gold Plus Achievement Award.

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