It's understandable for women to worry a lot about breast cancer. With so many messages aimed at us from so many places, breast cancer awareness, prevention and screening is top-of-mind when it comes to health news. But it may be time to rethink our worries.

“Some reports quote up to 38 percent of women will die of cardiovascular disease, or more than 10 times that of breast cancer,” says Dr. Jeff Ciaramita, chief of cardiology at Mercy Clinic Heart and Vascular St. Louis.

Stroke is one of the many risks associated with cardiovascular disease, and one that women need to take seriously. More men than women have strokes each year, but more women than men die of stroke each year, Ciaramita notes. "This is likely due to differences in risk factors, including factors such as pregnancy, hypertension, hormones and hormonal therapy." 

Symptoms of stroke are the same for men and women. Signs of possible stroke include the sudden development of:

  • drooping or numbness on one side of the face
  • weakness or numbness in one arm or leg
  • difficulty with speech (slurring, unable to speak, difficult to understand)
  • confusion
  • difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
  • change in gait (difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance)
  • severe headache.

If you or someone you know suddenly develops any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Fast treatment is key to improving the chances of a full recovery.

According to Dr. Angela Brown, a specialist in hypertension (blood pressure) management with Washington University Physicians and president-elect of the American Heart Association Greater St. Louis Division, a stroke can happen to anyone at any age. "But the risk is greater for those age 55 and older. In addition, a family history of stroke, African-American race, and prior stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack) are risk factors that cannot be changed."

However, women do have some control over several important risk factors. These include hypertension (the leading cause of stroke), smoking and high cholesterol. “For women, the risk appears to be higher particularly in those who smoke and use oral contraceptives,” Brown says. “Data has also shown that additional risk factors for women, particularly those younger than 65, may include history of migraine headaches, use of oral contraceptive pills or hormone replacement therapy, history of autoimmune diseases like diabetes or lupus, and clotting disorders, such as a previous history of clots in the legs or more than one miscarriage.”

Findings from a study of women age 45 and older suggest that maintaining a healthy lifestyle, which includes not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, regular exercise, a healthy diet and body mass index of 25 or less, is associated with a significantly lower risk of the most common type of stroke.

“Every woman should take the time to discuss with their physician all of the risk factors for stroke. In addition to leading a healthy, active lifestyle, each woman should acknowledge their risk factors and be aggressive to treat them proactively,” Ciaramita says. “Knowledge--and the implementation of risk-factor reduction--is true power when it comes to stroke-risk reduction.”

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