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Raising Awareness of Stroke in Women

When you think of a young new mom in the prime of her life, you don’t necessarily think about stroke. But that wasn’t the case for Katherine Wolf of Bakersfield, who was just 24 years old when she suffered her first stroke right after giving birth to her son, Everett.

Diagnosed with a progressive condition that narrows the blood vessels in her brain, Wolf went on to suffer nine more strokes and underwent brain surgery to try and minimize further stroke risk.

“Stroke can strike at any age and it’s important for all of us to be aware,” Wolf said.”

According to the American Stroke Association, one in five women will have a stroke and more women than men experience stroke. Stroke is a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot or bursts. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood and oxygen it needs, so it and brain cells die.

“Strokes are medical emergencies and time is of the essence,“ said Dr. Laura Ragoonanan, a neurologist at Dignity Health’s Mercy and Memorial Hospitals. “Recognizing a stroke and seeking emergency medical services immediately is key to recovery.”

Typical symptoms include face drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulty.

“However, some signs of stroke in women can be subtle enough to be missed or brushed off. That can lead to delays in getting time-sensitive, lifesaving treatments,“ said Ragoonanan.

Women also face higher and unique risk factors including:  

Pregnancy. Pregnant women are three times more likely to have a stroke as women of the same age.

Preeclampsia. This dangerous condition of high blood pressure during pregnancy doubles stroke risk later in life.

Birth control pills. Use of birth control pills can double the risk of stroke, especially in women with high blood pressure.

Hormone replacement therapy. HRT doesn’t lower stroke risk if postmenopausal, as once thought.

Migraines with aura and smoke. Strokes are more common in women who have migraines with aura and smoke, compared with other women.

Atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can increase stroke risk fivefold. After age 75, it’s more common in women than men.

“It’s important to know that some of these risk factors can be managed or addressed,“ said Ragoonanan. “Talking to your care provider about stroke risk is important, especially if you have a family history. Adjusting medications, working to manage blood pressure numbers and lifestyle changes can all be implemented to support women who have risk factors or anyone looking to reduce stroke risk.”

Immediate care is the key to surviving and recovering from stroke.

“A common misconception about stroke is that there are no treatments,“ said Ragoonanan. “Stroke is treatable, but quick action is necessary. The longer emergency medical intervention is delayed, the less options we have.“

For more information and stroke resources at Dignity Health Bakersfield, visit