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"All women, especially those over 55 years old, [should] get their risk factors for heart disease screened and aggressively treated," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"As women go through menopause, the loss of protective estrogen allows for the risk factors of cardiovascular disease -- such as diabetes -- to wreak havoc on the arteries," explained Steinbaum, who was not involved in the new study.
According to background information in the study, women living in developed countries are more likely to die from a stroke than their male peers. In the United States, women accounted for nearly 60 percent of stroke deaths in 2010, the study authors said.
In the study, a team led by Dr. Gang Hu of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., analyzed data gathered from almost 11,000 men and more than 19,000 women. During an average follow-up of almost seven years, nearly 3,000 cases of stroke occurred among the participants.
Depending on their blood sugar control, women with diabetes were 19 to 42 percent more likely to suffer a stroke than those without diabetes. The researchers also found that risk of stroke among women with diabetes was much higher for those aged 55 and older, compared to younger women.
No association between diabetes and stroke risk was found in men, according to the study published Feb. 24 in the journal Diabetologia.
"Diabetes poses a substantially greater increase in the risk of stroke among women than among men, which merits further investigation," the researchers concluded.
Why wouldn't diabetes raise men's stroke risk, too? According to Steinbaum, treatment may be key.
"Men tend to receive more preventive care and medications to protect the arteries, such as aspirin and statins," she said. "This lack of continuity [in care] between the genders could be the reason for the discrepancy."
"The best way to manage stroke is through prevention," she said. "For women, especially, where the link between elevated sugars and stroke is so clearly defined, and worse outcomes are more often seen, the emphasis needs to be on treating the risk factors and certainly implementing lifestyle options" to help wrestle blood sugar under control, she added.
The study authors agreed. "More aggressive blood sugar treatments and better control of other risk factor levels in women with diabetes are likely to substantially reduce stroke in this subgroup," Hu said in a journal news release.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCES: Suzanne Steinbaum, M.D, director, women and heart disease, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Diabetologia, news release, Feb. 24, 2014