Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

Elisha Carpenter, a 42-year-old mother of four children from Lafayette, woke up around 4 a.m. one morning to use the restroom. She felt fine when she woke up, but fell when she tried to get out of the bed. She was unable to move the left side of her body. Forty six-year-old Kindra Corbin, who also is from Lafayette, had been experiencing a headache for a few days. Since she worked at an elementary school, she lay down in the school nurse’s office one day when she wasn’t feeling well. As she talked to the nurse, her speech became slurred and incoherent.

Both women had suffered strokes.

In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Carpenter and Corbin – 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.

“Before the stroke, I was able to do everything,” Carpenter says. “I jogged, exercised, read, and worked as an administrative assistant.” Corbin also was active and enjoyed working with elementary school children. She was in the process of getting her teaching certification. Neither woman expected that a stroke was in the future for them.

“I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience,” Carpenter says. “It was very scary. I always thought men were more likely to have strokes than women. I found out the hard way that’s not true.”

Corbin agrees and strongly encourages women to get help immediately if they feel something out of the ordinary is going on, regardless of their other responsibilities. “If you don’t take care of yourself, you may not be able to take care of your other responsibilities anyway,” she says.

This gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Deepthi Cull, Medical Director of Lafayette Regional Rehabilitation Hospital. “Most people don’t realize that women suffer strokes more frequently than men,” she 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,” Cull says.

Both Carpenter and Corbin were transferred to Lafayette Regional Rehabilitation Hospital following their initial treatments. Carpenter received physical, speech and occupational therapies to help her learn to walk and speak again. “I can talk, but need additional time,” she says. “I’m back to walking and driving, and can cook a bit too. I still can’t write with my right hand, and I struggle with fatigue, but I’m making progress. I don’t think I could have come this far without all the support of my therapists.”

Corbin recalls that when she was admitted to Lafayette Regional Rehabilitation Hospital that she was unable to move the right side of her body or even say her name. With therapy treatments, she can now walk and talk, but getting her speech back to normal is still a goal and not yet a reality.  “I’m still going through speech therapy because there’s constant improvement,” she says. “I’m always getting better, so we’re not stopping!”