Knowing risk factors key to helping prevent stroke in women

The 2014 stroke prevention guidelines are the first evidence-based recommendations for preventing stroke in women. They are intended to help women and their primary care providers identify and treat risk factors unique to women.

Men and women share many of the same risk factors for stroke, but women also have sex-specific risk factors. Pregnancy, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes (developing diabetes while pregnant), oral contraceptives, postmenopausal hormone use (and changes in hormonal status) can increase a woman’s risk of stroke.

In addition, these risk factors for stroke are more common in women than they are in men: migraine with aura (type of headache accompanied by distortions in vision and hearing), atrial fibrillation (abnormal heart rhythm), diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and psychosocial stress.

High blood pressure – whether or not you are pregnant – increases your risk of stroke. Some women who have never had HBP develop it while they are pregnant. This condition is known as Pregnancy Induced Hypertension (PIH), which affects 6 percent to 8 percent of all pregnancies in the United States.

Almost 70 percent of these cases are in first-time pregnancies. If the mother is not treated, HBP is dangerous to both the mother and baby.

Preeclampsia is the most common blood pressure disorder during pregnancy, affecting between 6 and 10 percent of pregnant women. It is characterized by high blood pressure and high protein levels in the urine. If preeclampsia progresses to eclampsia, dangerous seizures can occur. This disorder can endanger the lives of both mother and child.

For the first time, the guidelines have specific, scientifically based recommendations on how to prevent preeclampsia in women with pregnancy-related high blood pressure or a prior history of preeclampsia during pregnancy. For at-risk women, the guidelines recommend calcium supplementation and low-dose aspirin to prevent preeclampsia. However, you should not start taking either low-dose aspirin or calcium supplements during pregnancy without advice from your healthcare provider.

For women with a history of preeclampsia, your risk of stroke may be higher up to 30 years after you have had your child. The recommendations suggest that you and your healthcare provider continue to manage your risk factors to reduce the likelihood that you will have a stroke.

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