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Women and Stroke: Know Your Risk and Warning Signs

When it comes to health concerns, strokes might not always be top of mind for many women. Yet, strokes are a significant health risk for women.   

Here’s a shocking fact: According to the American Heart Association, strokes are the third leading cause of death in women. What’s even scarier is that women have a higher chance of having a stroke in their lifetime compared to men. And the risk is rising fast in younger adults, especially among young women ages 25 and 44

“Men and women have similar risk factors, but some are more prevalent or unique to women,” said Ealaf AlRabia, MD, a neurologist with Banner – University Medicine. “In addition, some women may have more subtle symptoms that can be overlooked and untreated.” 

Understanding this silent threat is important for every woman’s well-being. Here are five important things you should know about strokes, including steps you can take to prevent them.  

1. What is a stroke? 

There are two main types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes occur when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain, cutting off its supply. Hemorrhagic strokes happen when a weakened blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the brain.  

Regardless of the type, both strokes can lead to a shortage of oxygen and nutrients reaching brain cells. Without this vital fuel, brain cells start to malfunction and die, causing problems with your body's functions.  

2. Unique risk factors for women 

The most common risk factors for stroke are the same for men and women. These include high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, lack of exercise, being overweight and family history.  

However, women also face some additional risk factors. One of the highest risk factors is a woman’s age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in five women between ages 55 and 75 will have a stroke. 

“Because women generally live longer than men, more women have strokes over their lifetime,” Dr. AlRabia said. “The longer you live, the more time you have to have a stroke.”  

In addition to age, there are other unique factors that you should be aware of: 

  • Pregnancy: Being pregnant can increase your risk of stroke. Pregnancy complications, like high blood pressure, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, can also increase the risk of clots and stroke later in life. 
  • Black women: According to the CDC, black women have an even higher risk of stroke and death due to stroke. Factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – which are more common in the Black community – contribute to this increased risk. 
  • Hormonal changes: Changes in hormones during your period, pregnancy and perimenopause/menopause can affect blood vessels and increase stroke risk. 
  • Hormonal medication: Taking birth control pills can increase the risk of stroke, especially if you smoke. Hormone replacement therapy in women during menopause slightly increases the risk of stroke. Transgender women who undergo hormone therapy as part of their transition may be at an increased risk of certain health conditions such as blood clots as well. 
  • Migraines with aura: Women who experience migraines with visual disturbances (aura) are at a higher risk of stroke, especially if they smoke or use hormonal contraceptives. 

3. Recognizing the signs and symptoms 

Some stroke symptoms are universal and can be remembered through the acronym BE FAST

  • Balance problems 
  • Eye problems 
  • Face drooping 
  • Arm weakness 
  • Speech slurring 
  • Time to call 911 

However, it’s important to understand that women may experience additional or different symptoms.  

“Women may have nontraditional stroke symptoms, which may make it difficult to know if you’re having a stroke or q need medical attention,” Dr. AlRabia said.  

These symptoms may include: 

  • Sudden and severe headache 
  • Fatigue and weakness 
  • Dizziness or loss of balance 
  • Confusion or difficulty understanding 
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 

“These symptoms may not always fit the typical stroke presentation, but they shouldn’t be ignored,” Dr. AlRabia said. “Time is of the essence when it comes to stroke treatment, so act quickly and call 911. Every minute matters to save the brain.” 

4. Lifestyle factors and prevention 

When it comes to preventing strokes, adopting a healthy lifestyle can make a difference in your health. This includes: 

  • Checking your blood pressure: Get your blood pressure checked regularly during wellness exams. Treat high blood pressure if you have it. 
  • Healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can help manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Some heart-healthy diets include the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet
  • Regular exercise:Studies show physical activity reduces the lifetime risk of vascular disease, stroke and heart disease in women,” Dr. AlRabia said.  
  • Healthy weight: Being overweight or obese increases the risk of stroke. Strive for a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Talk to your health care provider if you need help losing weight.  
  • Avoid smoking and heavy drinking: Both can increase the risk of stroke, so quit smoking and limit alcohol intake. 
  • Be aware of family history: If you have a history or are at higher risk for vascular disease or heart disease, talk to your provider. You can also check your stroke risk with this assessment

5. Get help and support 

If you’re ever worried about your stroke risk or notice any unusual symptoms, reach out for help. Don’t hesitate to talk to your provider or a Banner Health specialist if you have concerns. They’re there to support you and can offer guidance on how to stay healthy and address any health issues you have. 

“Remember to speak up and advocate for yourself,” Dr. AlRabia said. “If you aren’t getting attention and good advice, it’s OK to find another provider or get another opinion.” 


Strokes are a serious health issue for women, but there are ways to protect yourself. By knowing what makes you more likely to have a stroke, spotting the warning signs and living a healthy lifestyle, you can take charge of your health and lower your chances of having a stroke. 

If you have questions or concerns, don’t wait. Schedule an appointment with your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist. It’s important to look after yourself and make choices that help you feel your best. 

For other related blogs, check out: 

Women's Health Brain and Spine Neurosciences Stroke