Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

On Oct. 4, 2010, 44-year-old Nikki Barlos-Garner of Casper, Wyo. experienced a debilitating headache that affected her eyesight. The next day, Barlos-Garner took her mother to the doctor for her mother’s routine checkup. While she was in the waiting room, Barlos-Garner collapsed and fell unconscious.

A nurse immediately identified Barlos-Garner’s stroke symptoms and got help. Once Barlos-Garner was admitted to Wyoming Medical Center, doctors informed her that she indeed had suffered a stroke.

In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Barlos-Garner – 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.

“At first, I couldn’t believe it,” Barlos-Garner says. “I couldn’t believe I had a stroke. I used to think my husband was more at risk than I was.”

Gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Ryan Swan, Inpatient Medical Director for Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital. “Most people don’t realize that women suffer strokes more frequently than men,” he says. “If you’re a woman, you share a lot of the same risk factors for strokes as men, but a woman’s risk is also influenced by hormones, reproductive health, pregnancy, childbirth 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, found that the following factors are linked to increase stroke risk in women:

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

The study also showed that 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,” Swan says.

Being aware of stroke symptoms, can greatly impact the recovery process. Barlos-Garner’s symptoms were identified quickly, which ultimately aided in her recovery.

After being treated for initial stroke care at a local hospital, Barlos-Garner was transferred to Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital where she spent a month receiving rehabilitation to help her recover, which included daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy. She has made substantial progress with her recovery, thanking her many friends, family, and therapists who have supported her and cheered her on the entire way.

Just last year, however, Barlos-Garner lost her husband to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). She says that her stroke and husband’s passing have forever changed her outlook on life. “I’m thankful for how far I’ve managed to come,” she says. “You have to realize that life is too short, so don’t let a stroke stop you from living.”

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