For the first time, the American Heart Association has issued stroke guidelines aimed at women.
It is a timely story, with Friday being National ‘Wear Red Day,’ raising awareness for heart health in women. A big reason for the guidelines is that the overall risk for stroke is higher in women than men, in part because women live longer.
But women also have their own unique risk factors.
Developing hypertension or high blood pressure during pregnancy, birth control pills and migraines with aura, are more specific and common to women. But what women generally experience in their 20’s and 30’s– are ‘now’ identified as major risk factors for developing a stroke.
“Hypertension, pre-eclampsia, and toxemia double the risk of stroke later in life, even if your blood pressure goes back down to normal,” said Dr. Louise McCullough of the Stroke Center at Hartford Hospital.
McCullough co-chaired the panel that wrote the stroke guidelines after dissecting masses of data. Screening, she says, is crucial for women who are more at risk.
“If somebody has a history of pre-eclampsia and they come seem me and their blood pressure is 135, I may bring them in three months or six months later for a blood pressure check whereas if you didn’t have pre-eclampsia or you were 120, I may let you go for an annual physical,” McCullough said.
The panel also recommended steps of prevention.
“We do know now and it’s in the recommendations — that both calcium supplements and low dose aspirin in a pregnant woman with hypertension or a history of pre-eclampis can reduce the risk,” McCullough said.
She also said in some women, birth control can cause hypertension. “If you’re going to put a young woman on birth control, she should probably come back to make sure she’s not developing hypertension from the pill,” McCullough said.
For women with migraines with aura, McCullough said many gyneclogists don’t know how to ask the important questions.
“Do you have migraines? when you have migraines, do you have spots? do you get weak on one side? They might not ask that before giving the 25 year old a prescription for birth control,” McCullough said.
“I think this guideline is to get people to understand the risk and who could be at risk that you haven’t identified.”
Dr. McCullough says more studies need to be done in stroke treatment and prevention for women.
She says 55,000 more women than men suffer a stroke each year. For more information, visit the American Heart Association’s website.