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New guidelines to prevent stroke in women can save lives: What you should know

Learn about the risks of stroke in women.
Learn about the risks of stroke in women.
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For the first time, two organizations have teamed up to issue stroke prevention guidelines specifically for women. Women suffer more severe strokes and have unique risks such as oral contraceptives as well as different risk factors such as migraines with aura, making the new guidelines critically needed, reported the Boston Globe on Feb. 7.

And although people typically think of strokes as something happening to elderly men, statistics show that strokes are the third leading cause of death in women. In contrast, they are only the fifth leading cause of death in men. Moreover, women take longer to recover and are more likely to end up in a nursing home after the stroke. The reason?

"Doctors really need to be focusing more on women when it comes to stroke prevention,” said Dr. Shazam Hussain, head of the Stroke Section at the Cleveland Clinic, in reference to the new guidelines issued by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association..

And many physicians fail to do so, according to studies.

Although preeclampsia is ranked as a stroke risk factor like smoking, high cholesterol and obesity, "many women report that their doctors never ask about their pregnancy history,” said the guideline lead author Dr. Cheryl Bushnell, a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC.

A stroke usually occurs when a blood clot forms in a blood vessel going to the brain, thereby depriving it of oxygen, reported Forbes on Feb. 7.

“Women have very unique risks,” said Bushnell.

Those risks include pregnancy, hypertension, preeclampsia, eclampsia, hormonal use such as oral contraceptives and hormones that are used to help treat the symptoms of menopause.

And although prevention and diagnosis of risks typically are laid at the doctors' doorsteps, women can be proactive in protecting themselves and raising concerns to their health care providers, agree experts.

What you should know: Start now thinking about preventing strokes. If you have high blood pressure, make sure to follow the instructions about medication and lifestyle changes. Don't know your blood pressure? Get it checked now.

In addition, make changes to improve your lifestyle.

“We have a sedentary society, unfortunately,” said Bushnell.

I would emphasis exercise, eating right, and the American Heart Association has the whole Life’s Simple 7. And that’s what I would emphasize for younger women – and all women – who may be at risk for stroke. We’re trying to improve the general health of the population. So all of those actions will help prevent stroke in the future – especially for women.

In addition, if you smoke, be aware of the increased risk for stroke. If you suffer from migraines with visual auras, your risk is even higher. The new guidelines emphasize that these types of migraines combined with smoking make your risk of stroke soar.

As for the role of exercising and eating right, it's key in preventing strokes, added Bushnell. The new guidelines emphasize fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The American Heart Association's Simple 7 and diet guidelines also are offered in a series of books, including "American Heart Association No-Fad Diet: A Personal Plan for Healthy Weight Loss" and "American Heart Association The Go Red For Women Cookbook: Cook Your Way to a Heart-Healthy Weight and Good Nutrition."