It wasn’t until I’d been off hormonal birth control for several months that I realized that the risk of blood clots — and hence strokes and heart attacks — were increased while those hormones flowed through my body. And it wasn’t until a few years later, when my eldest brother had a stroke at age 30, that I really became concerned about stroke prevention.
At the time he had his stroke, I was hardly aware that strokes even happened to people under the age of 80. Since then, of course, I’ve come in contact with many people whose lives have been dramatically altered by strokes at relatively young ages and seen how devastating it can be to have your life interrupted in that way.
And while it often seems like a fluke occurrence — like a lightning strike in the life of someone who by all accounts appears to be healthy — the National Stroke Association says that up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable. To lower my risk, I exercise frequently, eat lots of vegetables and fruits, and stay away from alcohol and tobacco.
While these general guidelines are helpful for everyone, this month the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association have issued guidelines for stroke prevention specifically for women. The guidelines take into account not only the fact that women are different from men, but also that they have different needs at different times of life: whether they are pregnant or preventing pregnancy, whether they are young or old, or whether they suffer from additional indicators, like migraine headaches.
The guidelines were published in Stroke, the American Heart Association’s journal on the topic. Some of the highlights include:
- Women with a history of high blood pressure before pregnancy should be considered for a low-dose aspirin to lower risk of preeclampsia (high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy that can lead to serious complications and even death).
- Pregnant women with moderately high blood pressure should be considered for treatment with blood pressure medication, while those with severe high blood pressure should definitely be treated.
- Preeclampsia should be considered a risk factor for stroke (along with obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure) even after pregnancy because women who have had it are twice as likely to have a stroke.
- Women should be screened for high blood pressure before they go on birth control pills because the combination increases the risk of stroke.
- Women who have migraines with auras should definitely not smoke — and should quit if they do smoke.
I am, of course, very grateful to know the risks that birth control poses to women who take it. And I am glad to know that there are specific things that women can look for at specific times in their lives to keep themselves healthy and well. But I am especially grateful that I can pass these guidelines on to friends and family who may benefit particularly from them. Who knows? It could save their life as they know it. Feel free to pass them on, too. Maybe you could save a life.
photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt