Stroke is the fourth-leading killer in the U.S., as reported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). And even when a stroke isn’t lethal, it’s still serious. “A stroke can be devastating to individuals and their families, robbing them of their independence,” the organization’s experts write. So a new study that links increased stroke risk with something that happens to many of us at night is cause for concern. Read on to find out what could put you in harm’s way, and how you can lower your chances of suffering from this potentially debilitating event.
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A stroke is just one of a number of conditions, diseases, and disorders that involve blood flow to the brain, Medical News Today reports. Cerebrovascular events often have similar symptoms, which may include things like sudden severe headache, paralysis or weakness on one side of the body, loss of balance, loss of vision, confusion, and difficulty communicating.
“Urgent medical attention is essential if anyone shows symptoms of a cerebrovascular attack because it can have long-term effects, such as cognitive impairment and paralysis,” the organization says.
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A study published this month in the journal Neurology looked at 226 women with an average age of 59 to find out whether they could establish a connection between menopause and poor cardiovascular health. The researchers found that women who suffer from hot flashes and night sweats—common during this life transition—had an increased number of tiny lesions on their brains, called “white matter hyperintensities.”
These lesions are linked with not only stroke, but also with Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline, Healthline reports. “We previously thought the symptoms of menopause were just a benign rite of passage in a woman’s life—this may disprove that,” Shae Datta, MD, told the site. “Previous research showed us that menopause causes worsening of cardiovascular health during menopause. Since cardiovascular health is closely tied to brain health, this study may give us more clues into brain health after menopause.”
Jessica Shepherd, MD, board-certified OB-GYN and co-founder of menopause wellness brand StellaVia, says night sweats and hot flashes “start with small elevations in core body temperature, and also changes to the thermoneutral zone which is regulated in the neurons in the brain. This is due in part, but not entirely, to estrogen depletion at menopause. Hormone changes related to reproductive hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, as well as thermoregulatory neuron receptor changes, can cause changes in your body temperature that make you feel too hot.”
If you suffer from night sweats, there’s no need to panic, according to Datta and other researchers. “The study did not show generalizable results for all races as it mainly had white participants,” she told Healthline. “It was also done over a three-day period. A longer timeline may be needed to see a more robust correlation.”
James Giordano, PhD, pointed out to Healthline that the study authors were not looking specifically for a connection between night sweats and cerebrovascular events like stroke. “The authors were not attempting to define whether the underlying mechanisms of hot flashes or the hot flashes themselves may be contributory to changes in brain function and structure that could lead to neurological disease,” he explained.
An earlier study out of Queensland, published in the Dec. 2020 issue of American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that women who experienced hot flashes and night sweats were 70 percent more likely to suffer from stroke, heart attack, and angina—chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.
The study’s senior author, Gita Mishra, PhD, said in a statement that “this research helps to identify women who are at a higher risk for the development of cardiovascular events and who may need close monitoring in clinical practice.”
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If you’re concerned about your stroke risk, especially in light of these study findings, speak with your healthcare provider about ways to lower your chance of this often catastrophic event. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also offers a list of tips about how you can slash your stroke risk, including things like eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical exercise, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco use.