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Women Need to Know Risk Factors and Signs of Stroke

As stroke is increasing among young people, including women, it’s never too early to address risk factors.

By Payal Fadia, M.D.
Medical Director of Post-Acute Brain Injury Services, Shepherd Center

Recent studies show a disturbing increase in the incidence of stroke in young women.  What we used to regard as something that might only happen to our grandparents is now occurring in much younger people – with increasing numbers seen specifically in women. 

The American Heart Association estimates that about 55,000 more women than men have a stroke every year.  Stroke is the third leading cause of death in women, and the fourth leading cause of death in men. Women not only face the same risks for stroke as men, but they also have gender-specific risks that have recently led to the development of new guidelines to identify women at high risk and offer better treatment options for them. 

The new American Heart Association/American Stroke Association prevention guidelines list these factors as contributors to an increased stroke risk in women:

  1.  Pregnancy plus preeclampsia (or high blood pressure during pregnancy)
  2.  Birth control pills
  3.  Hormone replacement therapy
  4.  Migraines with aura plus smoking
  5.  Atrial fibrillation

Depression and emotional stress are also linked to increased stroke risk in women more than men. 

Healthy lifestyle choices have a huge impact on stroke risk. We know that smoking/tobacco use, alcohol use, physical inactivity and obesity are all red flags when it comes to the potential for stroke. Recent research published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke has shown that stroke risk decreased by 32 percent with every 200 grams of fruit consumed daily and 11 percent with every 200 grams of vegetables consumed each day. 

Also, women and their healthcare providers should not overlook other medical risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and atherosclerosis. These conditions remain as important for women as the risks listed above.  

Equally important is the ability to identify warning signs of a stroke to get the appropriate care necessary. A recent study in the journal Stroke found that one in five women are unable to identify a single warning sign.  We know that early intervention is crucial in minimizing long-term and potentially devastating disability. Any neurological change should be promptly evaluated by a physician. Such changes include dizziness, severe headache, visual changes, difficulty speaking, weakness, numbness and difficulty walking.

Similar to how we have become educated about early screening and intervention for breast cancer and heart disease in women, we must take the next steps in increasing awareness and understanding of not only how we can decrease our risk of stroke, but also how we can identify warning signs of a stroke to get the right treatment promptly. Stroke remains a leading cause of disability in this country.  On a personal note, there are many facets to my daily life. In addition to being a physician, I am a mom, sister, daughter and wife. There isn’t typically a lot of time left at the end of the day to think about my own health, but my take-home message to all women out there is this:  PLEASE make the time to pay attention to your health, lifestyle, diet and risks for stroke. Don’t let your own health take a backseat to your busy schedule.

And for the guys out there:  Look around at all the women (young and old) in your life and support them in getting their health on the right track. All of us will benefit in the long run if we do!

Remember, stroke is affecting ALL AGES, so it’s never too early to start paying attention to your risk factors.

For more information on stroke rehabilitation care at Shepherd Center, visit

PAYAL FADIA, M.D., is medical director of post-acute brain injury services at Shepherd Center in Atlanta. She joined Shepherd Center as a physiatrist in Shepherd’s Acquired Brain Injury and Neurospecialty units in 2008. Before practicing physiatry at Shepherd Center, Dr. Fadia managed the acute rehabilitation inpatient service at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut. Dr. Fadia earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and microbiology from the University of Florida and then completed medical school at St. Georges University School of Medicine in Grenada, West Indies. She did her residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Baylor College of Medicine and a fellowship in traumatic brain injury/stroke rehabilitation and spasticity management at the University of Texas–Houston.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.