In recognition of World Stroke Day 2015 and the theme “I am woman”, Stroke interviewed Cheryl Bushnell, MD, MHS, Professor of Neurology, Director at Wake Forest Baptist Stroke Center. Learn more about World Stroke Day
Stroke: World Stroke Day is on Thursday the 29th October 2015. The World Stroke Organization’s theme for World Stroke Day 2015 is ‘I am Woman’. What is the most important message for women when it comes to stroke?
Dr. Bushnell: The most important message for women is to know what a stroke is, what to do if one is occurring, and how to prevent a stroke. Women have unique risk factors, including pregnancy complications and use of hormones, so they need to know that these are risks of stroke. One of the key messages of our stroke prevention in women guidelines is that women with a history of preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy plus protein in the urine) are at risk for stroke for up to 30 years after childbirth.
Stroke: Are women at higher risk of stroke?
Dr. Bushnell: No, if you measure stroke incidence, men are at higher risk. But, because women live longer, they are at higher risk over an entire lifetime. Women have a 20% lifetime risk of stroke after age 55, whereas men have a 17% lifetime risk.
Stroke: How does pregnancy affect a woman’s risk of stroke?
Dr. Bushnell: Yes, it appears to double the risk of stroke compared to a woman who is not pregnant. This is especially true in the postpartum time period, and applies to most stroke types, including ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, as well as cerebral venous thrombosis.
Stroke: Does taking birth control pills or hormonal replacement affect a woman’s stroke risk?
Dr. Bushnell: Yes, birth control pills double the risk of stroke compared to women not taking these pills. However, the absolute risk of a healthy young woman taking these pills is still low. For example, a young woman’s risk of stroke may be 10/100,000, and taking OCPs increases this to 20/100,000. However, if a woman has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, or smokes cigarettes, all of these accentuate the risk of stroke in a woman using OCPs compared to women not taking OCPs. For hormone replacement, older women have about a 40% increased risk of stroke compared to women not taking the drug. It is important to realize these women were at least 10 years past menopause on average. The recent study of women who are recently menopausal (within 5 years), had no significant increase in markers of stroke risk (carotid wall thickening) compared to women not using hormone therapy. Therefore, hormone replacement is not recommended for older women and those with an increased risk of stroke (such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, prior heart disease).
Stroke: Are women underrepresented in clinical research studies of stroke?
Dr. Bushnell: Yes, with only a couple of exceptions, women make up 35% to 40% of stroke prevention trials.
Stroke: What can health care providers do to reduce the burden of stroke in women?
Dr. Bushnell: Improve stroke awareness and what to do, and promote a healthy lifestyle. Women who incorporate the most healthy strategies in their daily lives have a 70% decreased risk of stroke compared to women with none of these strategies. This includes regular physical activity, healthy diet, normal body mass index, moderate alcohol use, and not smoking. Another important strategy is to maintain normal blood pressure. The healthy lifestyle can do this, but women tend to have high blood pressure at older ages, and these women are also less likely to have their blood pressure controlled. Therefore, education about blood pressure in older women is extremely important.
Stroke: A recent study showed that 81% of stroke center directors are men. What can be done to increase the role of women in stroke leadership positions?
Dr. Bushnell: For those of us in these leadership positions, hopefully we function as role models to promote more women as stroke center directors as a career choice. More women are going into stroke fellowships, so this will take time for the next generation to reach these leadership roles. Given the multidisciplinary nature of stroke centers and the tendencies for women to be collaborative, I believe women are likely to be successful in this role.
Learn more about World Stroke Day