Gender Puts Women More at Risk for Stroke

This past December, 70-year-old Bev Wehrman of LaSalle, Colo., was caring for her husband, John, who was recovering from knee surgery. After handing him pain medication, she headed into the kitchen. John followed after a few minutes when he didn’t hear any noise; he knew his wife wasn’t feeling well that day.

That’s when John found Bev unconscious. He immediately called 911.

Bev was rushed to an area hospital where she was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke. The stroke was significant enough that she was then flown to another hospital in Denver where she remained for two weeks.

In the battle of the sexes, here’s one that women like Bev – often unknowingly – take the lead in: About 55,000 more women than men have strokes every year. Strokes kill more women than men annually, making it the #3 leading cause of death in women.

This gender misconception about strokes is common, according to Dr. Revelyn Arrogante, Medical Director of Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital. “Most people don’t realize that women suffer strokes more frequently than men,” she says. “If you’re a woman, you share a lot of the same risk factors for strokes as a man, but a woman’s risk also is influenced by hormones, reproductive health, pregnancy, child-birth and other gender-related factors.”

For example, birth control pills may double the risk of stroke, especially in women with high blood pressure or who smoke. And, according to the American Heart Association, hormone replacement therapy – once thought to reduce stroke risk – in fact, actually increases it.

A recent study shared through the National Stroke Association listed these factors that have been found to increase stroke risk in women:

  • Menstruation before the age of 10
  • Menopause before age 45
  • Low levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEAS)
  • Taking oral estrogen or combined oral contraceptives

The study also showed a history of pregnancy complications can also indicate higher stroke risk.

These problems include gestational diabetes and high blood pressure during or immediately after pregnancy.

“Add this to other general risk factors for stroke like family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, lack of exercise, and being overweight –and it becomes clearer as to why women can be more at risk for stroke than men,” Arrogante says.

Prior to her stroke, Wehrman – who is a retired funeral home reception planner — enjoyed working outside, working with families at the funeral home, and being with her family. “She has a compassionate heart,” her husband says. “She loved helping people at the funeral home.”

After Wehrman’s initial treatment, she was transferred to Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Hospital for continued care. Her right side was paralyzed and she was unable to speak.

“Being a chaplain, I had visited patients at the rehabilitation hospital before,” John says. “So when our family physician said we were going to the best place to care for Bev, I knew he was right.” In fact, John says that their niece had been treated for a stroke at the hospital as well back in October. “Bev was so worried after we visited her,” he says. “She thought it had to be hard to have your life change so much. Little did we know it was to be prophetic.”

While at the hospital, Bev received speech, physical and occupational therapy daily. After two weeks, she was able to walk when she was discharged home. She now receives outpatient therapy, but she believes she will have a full recovery.

“It’s been tough,” John says. “They really work her hard, but she won’t stop. She goes above what they expect her to do. They are always smiling, encouraging, positive, and honest. You really need the honesty. They care about Bev as an individual. They care about us as a family. They were concerned about what I was going through as the husband, and even worried about my knee and the therapy I needed. This is so much more than a hospital. The staff really takes time for you as a person. That made a difference for all of us.”

John also says his family was encouraged to be involved and helped a great deal in the recovery process. “I couldn’t think or breathe,” he says. “I had to make so many decisions; my son and daughter helped me take care of things. And, we had a patient advocate that walked us through everything too. That was extremely helpful to have someone who could guide us through what we needed to do.”

As of now, Bev is able to work outside, go on trips, and visit her family. She still has difficulty speaking, but her communication continues to improve.

“I call her a miracle,” John says. “Prayer and her attitude is what got her through this. It’s her strength of character and being strong-willed that has gotten her this far.”

Bev nods her head and uses her limited speech to agree.  “It will be good,” she says.