For years, health experts believed that men faced a greater risk of stroke than women, but according to a new set of prevention guidelines released Thursday, women of all ages face a larger risk of the disease than the average man, the Washington Post reports.
As a result, women should monitor their blood pressure before taking birth-control pills or getting pregnant, the report says. Additionally, women are also more likely to have risk factors associated with stroke, including migraines, depression, diabetes and abnormal heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation.
The guidelines were released by the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association and marked the first time that recommendations were geared toward women.
Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death for Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the risk varies with race and ethnicity. Risk of having a first stroke is nearly twice as high for Blacks than for Whites, and Blacks are more likely to die following a stroke than are Whites.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are major risk factors for stroke, the CDC reports. And an estimated 49 percent of Americans have at least one of these three risk factors and several other medical conditions and unhealthy lifestyle choices could increase the risk for stroke.
Women have many of the same risk factors as men for stroke, but they have unique risks that come with pregnancy complications and hormone use, said Cheryl Bushnell, associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., who led a group of experts that developed the guidelines, according to the Post.
Women have always been included in information about maintaining cardiovascular health, “but it was buried in there,” Bushnell, who has been studying the topic for more than a decade, said. “We wanted to take topics that are really women-specific and emphasize stroke and put it all in one guideline.”
In some instances, the recommendations call for common-sense precautions that doctors and consumers should already be taking. These include regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, no smoking, and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, olive oil and low in saturated fat.
Other recommendations include:
●Women should be screened for high blood pressure before taking birth-control pills, because the combination raises stroke risks.
●Women with a history of high blood pressure before pregnancy should be considered for low-dose aspirin or calcium supplement therapy, or both, to lower preeclampsia risk.
●Women who have preeclampsia have twice the risk of stroke and a fourfold risk of high blood pressure later in life. Therefore, preeclampsia should be recognized as a risk factor well after pregnancy.
Preeclampsia and eclampsia are blood-pressure disorders during pregnancy that cause major complications, including stroke during or after giving birth, premature birth, and risk for stroke well after delivery — in some cases as long as 40 years later, the Post notes.
“Women are more adversely affected by stroke than men,” the guidelines say. “Now more than ever, it is critical to identify women at a higher risk for stroke and initiate the appropriate prevention strategies.”