WASHINGTON, D.C., February 7, 2014 ( – February 7 is “National Wear Red Day,” sponsored by the American Heart Association (AHA) to draw attention to the risk of heart disease and stroke in women.  On Thursday, the organization released new stroke prevention guidelines specifically for women, reminding them that hormonal contraceptives like birth control pills increase their risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), blood clots and stroke – especially for women who are over 40, overweight, smoke or suffer from migraine headaches.

“If you are a woman, you share many of the same risk factors for stroke with men, but your risk is also influenced by hormones, reproductive health, pregnancy, childbirth and other sex-related factors,” said neurologist Cheryl Bushnell, M.D., the guidelines’ lead author, in a statement. “The risk factors that are unique to women need to be recognized, and women can start decreasing their risk much earlier than they thought, even in the childbearing years.”

According to the guidelines, use of oral contraceptives nearly doubles the risk of stroke in women, who die from stroke at a much higher rate than men. Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in women, accounting for 60 percent of all stroke deaths, according to the AHA. 


Citing the “well-established risk” of birth control use by older women, cigarette smokers, and those who suffer from hypertension or migraines, the guidelines recommend that women be screened for high blood pressure before starting on the pill.  The guidelines also suggest that users of oral contraceptives who have one or more additional risk factors for stroke – such as hypertension, migraines or obesity – pursue “aggressive treatment” of those risk factors while on the pill.

While this is the first time the AHA has come out with stroke prevention guidelines specifically targeted at women, it is not the first time the organization has highlighted the risks oral contraceptives present to women’s cardiovascular health.

“Doctors and researchers have found a link between birth control pills and an increase in blood pressure among some women,” the AHA says in their fact sheet about birth control and heart disease. “They say that it is more likely to occur in women who are already overweight, have kidney disease or have a family history of high blood pressure.”

According to the AHA, nearly two-thirds of American women are overweight (BMI 25+), including 60.2 percent of white women, 79.9 percent of black women, and 78.2 percent of Mexican-American women.  Nearly half of black women over 20 suffer from high blood pressure, while nearly one-third of white and Hispanic women do.

But even women without such risk factors can succumb to the dangers of oral contraceptives.  A number of high-profile deaths and injuries of young, otherwise healthy women after beginning a birth control regimen have led to investigations and warnings by health organizations around the world.

In the United Kingdom, 18-year-old beauty queen Georgie Holland suffered a stroke and partial blindness after taking the oral contraceptive Yasmin, which is heavily marketed to young girls.  The teen spent a week in the hospital, suffered permanent damage to her vision, and must now take daily blood thinners to prevent another stroke.  Her doctors blame the birth control pill for her ordeal.

In Canada, another 18-year-old, Marit McKenzie, died of a brain hemorrhage after taking another contraceptive pill, Diane-35, which was ostensibly prescribed to control her acne.  The same drug has also been implicated in the deaths of 27 Dutch women, most of them under 30.

Another Canadian, Marie-Claude Lemieux, suffered a stroke and total paralysis at age 29, after just six months on birth control pill Tri-Cyclen.  It took nearly three years of physical therapy for her to regain partial control of one of her fingers, which allows her to communicate with her husband and the outside world.  Lemieux, who had no risk factors for stroke aside from use of the pill, told Quebecois newspaper La Presse, “Nobody mentioned the risk [of the pill] and I believed that since it was approved, it was not dangerous.” 

Added Lemieux, “Let’s say it has a nasty side effect.”