Strokes can be devastating and frequently affect men and women of all ages. Some strokes are relatively minor and the patient soon recovers, but others are far more serious and the patient never recovers.
The symptoms of a stroke are caused by an interruption in the blood flow to the brain, which leads to the death of brain cells and causes brain damage. We know strokes occur in both men and women, but what causes strokes specifically in women?
There are two distinct types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic is the most common type of stroke and is responsible for around 75% of strokes in both men and women. An ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot forming somewhere in the body. The clot then breaks away and travels to the brain and causes a blockage. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and floods the surrounding tissue with blood, which interrupts normal blood flow and places pressure on the brain.
There are many risk factors for stroke ranging from health issues to lifestyle choices, but men over the age of 55 are statistically more likely to suffer a stroke than women in the same age group.
What causes strokes in women?
Strokes can be caused by a number of different medical conditions and lifestyle choices, most of which are typically seen in both men and women. Well known risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and drug use, family history of strokes, high cholesterol, obesity, heart disease, although high blood pressure alone is enough to significantly increase the risk of men and women suffering a stroke, irrespective of any other existing health conditions.
But as well as the more obvious health problems known to increase the chances of having a stroke, other risk factors for women in particular include the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy, and pregnancy.
Women who take birth control pills containing high levels of oestrogen have an increased risk of suffering a stroke. This is even higher if the woman smokes and/or suffers from migraines with visual auras. Consequently, such women in high risk categories are usually prescribed progesterone only contraceptive pills to reduce their stroke risk.
Pregnancy is another condition that can increase the chances of a woman suffering from a stroke. Whilst pregnancy alone is not responsible for causing strokes, there are several complications resulting from pregnancy that can cause strokes in women.
Pre-eclampsia is one such condition. Caused by a combination of high blood pressure and kidney malfunctions, pre-eclampsia symptoms can start as early as week 20 in a pregnancy. If high blood pressure is not brought under control, the condition will deteriorate and cause eclampsia, which can lead to seizures and strokes.
Amniotic fluid embolism is another pregnancy related condition that can cause strokes in women. This occurs when some of the amniotic fluid surrounding the baby escapes into the mother’s circulatory system and causes an embolism, which can lead to a paradoxical stroke. However, this is exceedingly rare.