Stroke is a serious and potentially deadly medical condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 1 in 5 women between age 55 and 75 will suffer a stroke.
However, younger women may not realize that they, too, could be at higher risk due to certain medications — including birth control pills — pregnancy, smoking and even migraines.
A stroke occurs when there is a lack of blood flow to part of the brain, says Mary Kalafut, MD, a neurologist at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines and Scripps Clinic Anderson Medical Pavilion in La Jolla. It can happen when something is blocking blood flow or when a blood vessel has ruptured.
“As you can imagine, it can present itself in many different ways because the brain, of course, controls everything that we do,” she says.
Knowing the signs of stroke and getting fast treatment when stroke symptoms occur can literally make the difference between life and death or serious disability. Scripps is recognized as being among the best places for brain and spine care.
Poorly controlled or uncontrolled hypertension, an irregular heartbeat, nicotine use, diabetes and high cholesterol increase stroke risk for men and women. For women, oral contraceptives can also increase the risk for stroke, though there are some contributing factors.
“The baseline risk of young women is quite low, so taking contraceptives, even though it does increase it, it’s still a very, very low risk,” says Dr. Kalafut.
“But there are certain things that can compound or increase your risk of stroke when you do take oral contraceptives. One is if you have hypertension. Two is if you’re smoking. Also being overweight. And finally, having significant migraines can also increase your risk.
“If you’re taking contraceptives and have all four of those things, your risk goes up significantly,” she continues.
During pregnancy, a woman’s risk for stroke is slightly higher if she has preeclampsia or eclampsia, both of which are marked by high blood pressure. However, the greatest risk is during the postpartum period, says Dr. Kalafut. Doctors aren’t entirely sure why, but it’s thought to be related to the hypercoagulable state the body goes into after delivering a baby.
“It’s not super common, but it is definitely something that is a risk factor in the postpartum period,” she says.
So, how can younger women lower their risk? The same way everybody else can. Keep your blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol under control, get regular exercise, eat healthy (a Mediterranean-type diet is thought to be the most helpful for preventing stroke and heart attack) and don’t smoke.
Though the stroke risk for younger women is overall pretty low, Dr. Kalafut says speak up if you feel something may be off.
“Young women need to be advocates for themselves,” she says. “They should feel empowered to talk about their symptoms and concerns to be sure they get the care that they need.”
This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.