Could belly fat be a cause of stroke in women?

March 2, 2010 3:23:22 PM PST
It's a sobering statistic - women are three times more likely than men to suffer from strokes. And one of the reasons might be around your waist.

A new study says a fat belly may increase a woman's risk of stroke. The early results of the study finds a higher risk for stroke among women in their 40s and 50s than in men of the same age. There are other risk factors, and things you can do to reduce your own risk.

Rockelina Hernandez is doing well now, but about two years ago, she awoke speaking unintelligible words. At the age of 40, she was having a stroke.

"Nothing came out right," she said. "I said to my husband, help me please. I said it in Spanish, I couldn't say it in English."

Her language problems are improving, but Rockelina is typical of patients reported recently in the preliminary study that found that women under age 55 had midlife strokes and were almost three times more likely to report them as were men.

"Our lifestyle, with increased obesity, decreased exercise, is leading to an increased frequency of stroke in middle aged women," said Dr. Dara Jamieson, of New York Presbyterian/Weill-Cornell Medical Center.

Now, younger women are at risk for the same reasons as older victims - more obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure. And for Rockelina, migraine headaches with visual symptoms, flashing lights, blocked vision. About half of these headache patients have an associated heart condition that can lead to stroke. Fat around the stomach is also a risk factor.

Fat around the middle makes someone more prone to other risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. So preventing a stroke means healthy foods and exercise to lose weight, as well as not smoking.

"If diabetes is a problems, then control sugar," Dr. Jamieson said. "If elevated cholesterol is a problem, then that needs to be treated as well."

The heart problem that's related to migraine headaches with vision symptoms is called a patent foramen ovale, or commonly, a hole in the heart. If you have this type of migraine, you have a 50 percent change of having a hole in the heart, which is a stroke risk. You may want to ask your doctor about it.