Women are at greater risk for stroke than men, but these simple steps can lower your risk.
Midlife women are twice as likely as men to have strokes, an alarming fact in and of itself. But what’s even more alarming is that if you crunch the numbers, it just doesn’t make any sense. Men smoke more, drink more, and see their doctors less—probably to avoid confessing their sins. Cigarettes and alcohol up the risk of stroke, yet each year, about 55,000 more women than men suffer from them.Part of the reason these numbers are so out of whack: babies (not directly of course, though some moms might beg to differ). Being pregnant ups your risk, as does pregnancy-related complications, like preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Prebaby birth control pills also increase your chances—so do hormone replacement therapies to relieve menopause symptoms later in life. Mood might factor in as well: new research suggests depression could boost women’s stroke risk; and women are 70% more likely than men to get depressed.
If you quit smoking, limit alcohol, eat more fruits and vegetables, and keep your weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar in check, you lower your likelihood of stroke. Here are eight lesser-known ways to protect yourself, based on the latest research:
1. Walk 20 minutes a day. We know—you work, you have kids, errands to run, dinner to make, and an episode of Real Housewives to watch, so you barely have time to pee, let alone take 20 uninterrupted minutes to walk. Make the time. Even if you break it up into two 10-minute sessions, it’s worth it: Walking a total of 2 hours a week can cut your stroke risk by 30%, according to a large study of nearly 40,000 women, conducted over a 12-year period. Walk briskly (so you can talk but not sing) and your chances are reduced by almost 40%. (Get our best walking tips with our free Walk Off Weight Newsletter.)
2. Know the difference between sad and depressed. The latter makes you 29 percent more likely to suffer from stroke, says a new study of more than 80,000 women. Why? Depressed women tend to smoke more, weigh more and exercise less; plus, they’re more likely to have uncontrolled medical issues, like high blood pressure and diabetes, which can also increase stroke risk. Recognize depression symptoms and you can get proper treatment. Talk to your doctor if you: feel persistent sadness, anxiousness, or “emptiness”; hopeless; guilty, worthless or helpless; irritable; exhausted; if you lose interest in things you used to like; can’t concentrate or sleep; overeat or lose your appetite; think about suicide or have aches and pains that don’t go away even with treatment. (Take this quiz to see if you’re sad or depressed.)
3. Set your alarm for 7 hours of sleep. More than 10 a night in la-la land may increase your stroke risk by up to 63%, compared with the recommended 7-hour stretch, say scientists at Harvard. And if you’re especially loud in bed—while snoring, that is—studies suggest you’re twice as likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that raises your risk of stroke, as well as heart disease and diabetes.
4. Make olive oil your go-to ingredient…for sautéing, baking, frying, drizzling, and all other food-related ings. You know it helps lower your risk of heart attacks; new research now shows it extends its protective branch to strokes as well. An observational study of more than 7,600 French adults age 65 and older found that those who regularly use olive oil cut their chance of stroke by just over 40%.
5. Mind the migraine. Those extra-special headaches—particularly the ones that come with flashes of light and blind spots—appear linked to a higher stroke risk in women; and as an added bonus, most migraine-sufferers are women, thanks in part to hormonal fluctuations and medications. Though there’s no clear proof that indicates treating a migraine means no stroke, experts agree it’s reasonable to try and reduce their frequency. Talk with your doctor—she may prescribe preventive meds or suggest stress management techniques.
6. Pay attention to palpitations…especially if the heart flutters occur with shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and chest pain—those are all signs of atrial fibrillation (AF), an abnormal heartbeat that boosts risk of stroke about five-fold. More than 2 million Americans live with AF; taking anticlotting medication can help reduce your stroke risk.
7. Eat sweet potatoes. And raisins and bananas and tomato paste. Not all on the same plate but individually, each is loaded with potassium—and a diet rich in foods with this nutrient may reduce stroke risk by 20%, suggests a recent report. More good sources: fruits and veggies, fish, poultry, and dairy.
8. Lengthen that short fuse. No matter how many times you told him to pick up his dirty socks and asked the kids to shut the front door on their way out, take a deep breath before you blow a gasket: A study published in the journal Hypertension suggests that angry and aggressive people may be at a higher risk of stroke. Researchers found those who scored high for antagonistic traits on a standard personality test had greater thickening of the neck arteries (a risk factor for stroke) compared with people who were more agreeable.
9. Think FAST. Most women don’t: surveys show less than 30% can name more than two symptoms of a stroke. Use the handy mnemonic FAST to recognize the symptoms:
F (face): uneven smile, facial droopiness, numbness, vision disturbance
A (arm & leg): weakness, numbness, difficulty walking
S (speech): slurred, inappropriate words, mute
T (time): Realize that time is critical. If you notice any of the above symptoms, immediately call 911—studies show that you get faster care if you arrive at the hospital in an ambulance than if someone drives you. With strokes, time lost is brain lost—simple as that.