When 30-year-old Sheila Stephenson of Raymondville, Texas, first felt a little dizzy, she was uncertain of the reason. She had just woken up to start her day in New Orleans while on a family weekend getaway. But when her speech became impaired, she knew it was serious. Her husband quickly drove her to a nearby hospital.
Once admitted, Stephenson was told that she had a stroke.
In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Stephenson – 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. In Texas, 48,103 women have suffered from strokes in the past eight years according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 2017 Annual Report.
“I knew I wasn’t at my desired weight, but I always tried to stay active by being involved in sports,” Stephenson says. “To say I was surprised about having a stroke is an understatement. I never thought that could happen to me.”
Gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Juan Asuaje, Medical Director of Weslaco Regional 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 a man, but a woman’s risk also is influenced by hormones, reproductive health, pregnancy, child-birth 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 listed these factors that have been found to increase stroke risk in women:
- Menstruation before the age of 10
- Menopause before age 45
- Low levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS)
- Taking oral estrogen or combined oral contraceptives
The study also showed 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,” Asuaje says.
For Stephenson, being aware of her symptoms helped her get the care she needed quickly, which ultimately aided in her recovery. After being treated at a Louisiana hospital for initial stroke care, she was transferred to Weslaco Regional Rehabilitation Hospital where she spent two weeks receiving rehabilitation to help her recover, which included daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy.
“It was amazing,” she says. “I went into the rehabilitation hospital in a wheelchair, not able to walk, talk, or eat. It was really frightening. Then two weeks later, I could not only talk and eat, but I walked out of the hospital – with the staff and my family surrounding me and cheering for me as I did it.”
Stephenson says she now knows more about strokes and will share the information she has learned with others. She is now a runner and tries to join 5K events. She says she is more conscious about her health and does the 5K events because “she can.” “I’m blessed to be alive and be able to move,” she says.
“Whatever stage of life a woman is in, it’s important that she be aware of all the risk factors of stroke,” Asuaje 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.”