Stroke disproportionately affects more women than men: report

70 per cent of women are unaware of stroke risks such as obesity, smoking and taking oral contraceptives, according to a new report from the Heart and Stroke Foundation

Dina with her sister.
Dina Pestonji (on the right) had to re-learn how to talk, walk, read and write after suffering from two strokes at the age of 29. Courtesy of Dina Pestonji

Dina Pestonji didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, ate healthy food and ran marathons. Yet she had two strokes by the age of 29.

In December 2012, the Toronto local started experiencing massive headaches and shooting pains throughout her entire body. Her doctors found a two-centimetre mass in her brain, but even after countless tests, they couldn’t figure out why it was there. She began slurring her words and felt paralyzed on the right side of her body. Eventually, Pestonji experienced convulsions and had to undergo emergency brain surgery.


Jan. 7, 2013 was supposed to be Dina Pestonji's first day at her new job. Instead the 29-year-old had to undergo emergency brain surgery at Toronto Western Hospital. PHOTO COURTESY OF DINA PESTONJI

Following the surgery, Pestonji had to re-learn the basics of life — talking, walking and reading. Her physical recovery took about seven months. It took another four months for Pestonji’s speech skills to return to normal. Formulating sentences was a challenge. Her typically energetic voice had the monotonous tone of a robot.

“I was pretty much an infant I had to re-learn the alphabet,” Pestonji said. “For the first month and a half I didn’t actually realize what had happened to me. I had a feeling something had happened, but I didn’t know what it was.”

Pestonji is one of the 30,200 women in Canada who experience a stroke each year. According to Heart and Stroke Foundation’s 2018 Stroke Report,  women are significantly at a greater risk for stroke than men.

It’s something many women don’t realize, and lack of awareness is a big part of the problem. A national poll conducted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation found 70 per cent of women can’t name a single stroke risk factor, even though most risks are preventable.

Taking certain oral contraceptives is one risk factor specific to women, according to the report.


Statistics from Heart and Stoke Foundation's 2018 Stroke Report. GRAPHICS BY JELA TEJADA/TORONTO OBSERVER

“Women can prevent or reduce their risk of stroke by discussing their personal risks with their doctor before using birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy after menopause,” it states.

“I was pretty much an infant, I had to re-learn the alphabet.” —Dina Pestonji

A recent study from the Stritch School of Medicine at Chicago’s Loyola University found oral contraceptives increase the risk of stroke in women who have existing risk factors. However, the study states that absolute risk remains very low for healthy women with no risk factors, such as Pestonji.

“The risk for healthy young women who are not using oral contraceptives is about four in 100,000,” said Dr. Kaitlin Dupuis, primary care physician at Planned Parenthood Toronto. “When they start a hormonal or oral contraceptive, the risk goes up to about eight in 100,000.”

Published in July 2018, Pestonji’s book follows her experience as a teen struggling with an eating disorder, as well as surviving a car accident and two strokes in her twenties.  (BOOK COVER COURTESY OF DINA PESTONJI)

There are two types of hormones in birth control pills, estrogen and progesterone. For women with high risk factors, Dupuis tells her patients “to select a birth control method that is non-hormonal or progesterone only.”

Today, approximately 214,000 women are living with the effects of stroke, in comparison with 191,000 men.

According to the report, preventable risks for stroke include: having high blood pressure, physical inactivity, poor diet, smoking and obesity. Meanwhile, age, gender, family history and ethnicity (those of South Asian, African and Indigenous descent are at a higher risk) are uncontrollable factors.

Pestonji recently released a book about her experience, Surviving Myself. In it, she chronicles her life experiences, including the struggle to regain what she lost after her strokes.  Ten months after her brain surgery, Pestonji ran her seventh half-marathon.

“It is so important for women to take care of their mental health, emotional health and overall wellbeing,” she said. “Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to take care of everyone and everything around them, we don’t often put the focus on ourselves.”


Dina Pestonji ran her seventh half-marathon, only ten months after her surgery.


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Posted: Oct 22 2018 3:56 pm
Filed under: News Science & Health