Wolf Point Herald

Women Need To Increase Awareness Of Stroke Before And After Pregnancy

Dani Clarine-Rhodes, age 29, never thought she was at risk for a stroke, but one day earlier this year changed her life.

On Feb. 26, she gave birth to her son, Grayson, by C-section. Ten days later, she experienced a sudden, extremely severe headache and a change of sensation on her left side. She was LifeFlighted to Salt Lake City, Utah, and spent the next week and a half in the critical care unit.

“Most people don’t think about stroke at a young age,” Clarine-Rhodes, of Great Falls, said. “You need to watch for symptoms days out after giving birth.”

According to Department of Public Health and Human Services officials, cardiovascular disease — heart attack and stroke — is the leading cause of death among women in Montana and the U.S. In fact, recent reports show that strokes kill twice as many women as breast cancer every year.

“Women just need to be more stroke aware,” said Crystelle Fogle of the DPHHS Cardiovascular Health Program.

Fogle said in a recent survey, 40 percent of women were not at all or only somewhat concerned about a stroke in their lifetime. The lifetime risk of stroke is one in five for women, which is influenced by the longer life expectancy of women.

“Women also underestimate their personal risk for stroke,” Fogle stressed. A study of 800 women published in the journal Stroke found that women did not identify their health condition as a risk for stroke, even when they were at high personal risk. Controlling high blood pressure and not smoking are important steps to reduce risk of stroke. Other preventable stroke risk factors include high cholesterol, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), diabetes, excessive alcohol intake, and obesity. Some risk factors for stroke apply only to women, primarily taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.

Stroke risk is multiplied by a factor of 2.5 during and after pregnancy. Most pregnancy-related strokes occur during birth or in the next six weeks. Some conditions like preeclampsia or eclampsia during pregnancy can increase stroke risk. Diabetes and valve-related heart disease are also risk factors associated with pregnancy-related stroke. 

Some risk factors for stroke appear to affect women more than men, such as smoking and migraine headaches. Migraines are vascular headaches that cause blood vessels to spasm, which may disrupt blood flow to the brain and cause a clot to form. Clarine-Rhodes suffered from migraines that increased during her pregnancy, but she never considered her debilitating headaches a cue for stroke.

Clarine-Rhodes may not have had all of the prominent red flags for stroke, but the signs are apparent in the lingering effects. She has a loss of sensation in all of her left side, from head to toe. In August, while still working on recovery, she suffered another stroke, and with this one, the vision in her left eye changed and became blurry.

“The nerve to my left eye has been damaged,” she said. “What my brain perceives is not correct. When I’m tired or stressed, I get double vision. There’s also aphasia; I swap words, and have trouble with short-term memory.”

Her experience has left Clarine-Rhodes determined to be an advocate for stroke awareness, especially among women and younger adults. The need is there. Recent research has shown that, compared to men with stroke, women may be slower to recognize stroke symptoms and seek medical care.

This results in a 30 percent less chance of receiving clot-dissolving medication. The conclusion from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is more education about stroke should be directed to women, especially high-risk women.

More of Clarine-Rhodes story of stroke survival can be found at http://www.dphhs.mt.gov/publichealth/cardiovascular/.

Immediate treatment is critical for stroke. The stroke warning signs are:

•Sudden weakness of the face, arm or leg usually affecting one side of the body.

•Sudden loss of balance or coordination.

•Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.

•Sudden vision problems or severe headache with no known cause.

For information on women and stroke, visit www.healthywomen.org/healthcenter/stroke or call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653).