As the third leading cause of death for women in the United States there are certain stroke factors that all women need to know. The American Heart Association recently released a new set of guidelines for OBGYNs and primary care physicians to point out and clarify the gender specific factors. These guidelines set out by the AHA are the first of their kind to call attention to associated conditions and place emphasis on these associations in treatment.
Stroke factors unique to women include hormone levels, reproductive health, birth control pills, migraine headaches, pregnancy, and childbirth, with a number of other non-sex-specific factors identified as more predominant in women as well. The guidelines take care to outline the scientifically based recommendations for how best to treat each of these risk factors in patients. However, it is important that women educate themselves, especially if they work with multiple care providers, so they can alert their doctor of a risk factor which may have been missed.
Although more studies are needed to identify a “female-specific score” for stroke risk, the factors which have already shown a stronger tendency to occur in women than in men should be noted. One of these factors is a certain type of migraine headache which is accompanied by an aura. Studies have already shown a far greater percentage of women suffer from migraine headaches than men, and this type of migraine with aura has now been identified as a risk factor for strokes.
Another condition, Atrial fibrillation, is identified as a quivering or irregular heartbeat. This condition which affects 2.7 million people can occur without any other symptoms, though it can also present along with dizziness, shortness of breath or anxiety, weakness, fatigue when exercising, sweating, or chest pain. The new guidelines suggest all women over 75 have an Atrial fibrillation screening.
Diabetes, which has its own independent list of risk factors, has a strong two-way association with heart disease in women, with heart disease and stroke being the No. 1 cause of death and disability for diabetes mellitus sufferers. It has been identified among the women specific factors doctors need to know, along with depression, and emotional stress.
With the new guidelines these three conditions mentioned above, which doctors often treat separately, can be seen as related. Conditions that have been viewed as behavioral for years can now be better understood with the biological and chemical factors that trigger mental health issues, and conversely, the physiological connection of emotional stress and depression on the heart.
Among the sex-specific risk factors the guide gives great emphasis to pregnancy related blood pressure disorders. Conditions such as preeclampsia and eclampsia increase stroke risks not only during pregnancy and childbirth, but should be noted for the duration of a woman’s life. According to the guidelines, women who experienced preeclampsia during pregnancy have a four-fold risk of high blood pressure later in life. These conditions, along with stroke factors which are known to affect both men and women such as high cholesterol and smoking, are what care providers need to know to determine the preventative measures and treatment that can save more lives.
By Mimi Mudd