Stroke Risk Factors Every Woman Should Know

When a stroke happens, every second counts. Yet, few of us know all the warning signs and symptoms of stroke, or the unique risk factors women face.

“In the case of stroke, time is brain,” said Amy Guzik, MD, assistant professor of Neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. “With every minute that you delay seeking medical help, your brain can lose up to 2 million neurons. The longer you wait, the less likely treatments or recovery will be effective.”

A stroke occurs when blood clotting or bleeding prevents blood flow to the brain. It can cause cognitive deficits (changes in thinking), problems with vision or speech and motor deficits (weakness) that can be permanent and life changing. Stroke can happen to anyone. It is the fifth leading cause of death in our nation, with a stroke happening every 40 seconds.

The upside is that stroke is preventable and treatable if you know the signs to look for and properly manage your health.

Are You at Risk?

Women may be surprised to learn they have certain female-specific risk factors that contribute to stroke, the most common being pregnancy. Due to natural changes in the body and how veins tolerate blood volume, clotting and blood pressure can increase during pregnancy. Preeclampsia, a common complication characterized by hypertension and protein in the urine, also increases the risk, with it being highest in the third trimester and postpartum.

Taking oral contraceptives like birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy for menopause can also pose problems. Guzik advises to be especially cautious about taking hormone replacement if you have high blood pressure or smoke and recommends taking the lowest dose for the shortest amount of time.

Other major risk factors (in women and men) include:

  • High blood pressure (140/90 or higher)
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Physical inactivity
  • Poor diet
  • High cholesterol
  • Metabolic disorders like diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Atrial fibrillation (a heart rhythm disorder that causes irregular heart beat)
  • Migraine with aura
  • Sleep apnea

Know the Symptoms and Act FAST

Stroke usually happens suddenly, often without pain. Since most treatments are needed within a small window of three to four hours after symptoms start, it’s critical to get help as soon as possible.

“Women tend to wait to come to the hospital because they’re busy with work and family obligations, and they often don’t prioritize their own health,” said Guzik. “A stroke is a medical emergency, so it’s important to take symptoms seriously and get medical help immediately.”

Guzik says an easy way to spot stroke symptoms is by remembering the acronym FAST (Face, Arm, Speech, Time to call 911). If you notice facial changes or drooping, arm or leg weakness, speech changes like slurring or difficulty forming words, call 911. Other symptoms to look for are dizziness, imbalance and vision changes.

For the most part, the signs of stroke are the same in men and women with a few small differences. Females may experience a headache coupled with other symptoms and feel painful burning or tingling in the arms and legs, rather than weakness or a lack of sensation.

Take Charge of Your Health

Educating yourself about stroke is the first step in prevention. You can also lower your risk by practicing simple health habits every day.

“Talk to your doctor about your specific risk factors, family history, ways to control blood pressure and how to be heart healthy,” suggests Guzik. “Avoid tobacco products, exercise and eat a low-sodium, balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fats. And most important, remember to act FAST. It can save your life.”

Amy Guzik, MD, is one of seven neurologists specially trained in stroke care and board certified in vascular neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. The Comprehensive Stroke Center brings together a highly experienced team of stroke specialists and the most advanced technology to offer patients the best possible treatment and recovery outcomes. Visit or call 336-716-WAKE to learn more.