Pregnant women, new moms having more strokes: Why?

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(CBS/AP) Strokes are on the rise among pregnant women and new moms, according to a new report.

"That is a very, very alarm-raising statistic that we need to take extremely seriously," said Dr. Dr. Olajide Williams, chief of staff of neurology at Columbia University and spokesman for the American Stroke Association.

Why such a stark increase? According to the CDC researchers behind the study -published in the July 28 issue of the American Heart Association journal Stroke -it's because more and more women are obese.

Hospitalizations for pregnancy-related strokes and transient ischemic attacks - or "mini strokes - jumped 54 percent from 4,100 in 1994-95 to around 6,300 in 2006-07, researchers said.

"We need to be more aggressive in screening these women for these risk factors." Williams said.

The number of strokes is relatively small, considering 4 million babies are born in the U.S. each year. But pregnancy increases stroke risk because of the hormone and blood changes that occur. If a pregnant woman starts out unhealthy, with diabetes or high blood pressure, she doubles her risk of suffering a stroke during or right after pregnancy, said study author Dr. Elena Kuklina, a stroke prevention expert at the CDC.

For the study, researchers used records from a sample of hospitals in nearly all states, covering up to 8 million hospitalizations each year. They looked at the number of women having strokes or TIAs while pregnant or in the three months after childbirth. Rates were highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast.

Researchers also looked at the prevalence of obesity-related problems like high blood pressure and heart disease, and concluded that those factors accounted for nearly all the rise in stroke-related hospitalizations. Researchers said women are having children at later ages, which also increases risk.

Sometimes pregnant women and new moms are so focused on the baby that they neglect their own health, Williams said.

"They're thinking about the baby's name, the special room and what color they're going to paint the room," Williams said. "But an ounce of prevention is always the best recipe for a healthy life."

Kuklina agreed and said women considering pregnancy should see a doctor first to assess for stroke risk.

"It's important to live healthy lives, to have healthy diets, stop smoking if you are smoking, increase your physical activity and maintain your healthy weight before pregnancy and continue during pregnancy," she said.

To prevent long-term damage, it's key to get help as soon as stroke symptoms appear. The warning signs are sudden numbness or weakness on one side, severe headache with no known cause, trouble walking, speaking or seeing, and confusion.

The CDC has more on strokes.