Pregnancy is just one of several stroke risk factors that are unique to women. Risk for stroke increases with age, regardless of pregnancy. However, a 2016 study by researchers in New York and Boston found that pregnancy did not increase stroke risk for women age 35 and older compared with their non-pregnant peers. Women younger than 35, however, were a different story.
To conduct the study, researchers analyzed the records of all 12- to 55-year-old women hospitalized for stroke in New York from 2003 to 2012—more than 19,000 patients. They found nearly 800 were admitted during or shortly after pregnancy. Overall, older expectant mothers had more strokes, but the researchers found younger pregnant women had a higher risk relative to non-pregnant women in the same age group. For mothers-to-be age 24 and younger, the risk more than doubled; it was 1.6 times higher for expectant mothers age 25 to 34.
The researchers aren’t sure what’s behind the higher risk for young pregnant women. The researchers think pregnancy increases the likelihood of a stroke for women of all ages by making the blood more prone to clotting to protect against dangerous bleeding at birth. Preeclampsia—pregnancy-related high blood pressure—and shifting hormone levels also contribute.
The most important factor that contributes to stroke is gestational hypertension, particularly blood pressure greater than 160/100. Women with gestational hypertension or a history of preeclampsia are now treated differently with closer surveillance and even baby aspirin starting at twelve weeks.
Be Stroke Smart
Having a baby doesn’t mean women should live in fear of having a stroke—or that they’re powerless to prevent a brain attack. Use these tips to help keep your stroke risk at bay.
- Get chronic conditions under control. High blood pressure, diabetes and atrial fibrillation increase women’s risk for stroke. Work with your physician to manage these conditions from preconception to the postpartum period.
- Give “eating for two” a greater meaning. Guard your baby’s health and your own by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats and other sources of protein, such as beans and peas.
- Keep moving. Along with healthy eating, use regular exercise to address obesity—another significant stroke risk factor.
- Lean on your physician. He or she knows the latest guidelines for preventing strokes in women, which include treating high blood pressure before conception and preeclampsia.
- Learn the red flags. When a stroke occurs, the clock begins ticking. Physicians have a window of only a few hours to prevent or limit the damage of the most common kind of stroke. Recognizing the symptoms and seeking help quickly are crucial. Red flags include facial drooping, difficulty speaking, confusion, shortness of breath, weakness (particularly in the arms), behavioral changes, nausea, vomiting and sudden pain.