Harvard Heart Letter

Stroke and migraine: What's the link?

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People who have frequent migraines will quickly tell you that the pain can be excruciating. And for some sufferers, these headaches may also herald an increased vulnerability to small blood vessel damage in the brain and resulting strokes.

Approximately one in six adults in the United States reports having migraines. About a third of these people experience visual disturbances, known as aura, that precede the headache. While everyone with a history of migraines has a slightly elevated stroke risk, the likelihood double or triples in people with aura.

Other factors can further elevate risk. Dr. Cenk Ayata, a neurologist and stroke researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes, "A woman under age 50 who has migraine with aura will have four to six times the risk of stroke than a person in the general population. If that same woman smokes and uses birth control pills, her risk increases to 34 times that of the average." Strokes are very rare in young women, but those factors substantially raise the risk.

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