Menopause is not only a transition that comes with frustrating side effects like insomnia or hot flashes. The changes your body experiences during menopause may also increase your risk for severe health problems that you’ll need to watch out for as you age. One of these health risks is heart disease.
What most people don’t realize is that heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in women. Although men tend to develop heart disease earlier than women, women become much more susceptible to heart problems after they go through menopause. Experts believe this increased risk is related to changes in body chemistry caused by hormone fluctuations.
If you’re approaching menopause age, it’s crucial for you to give your heart health a little extra attention in order to reduce your risk for disease.
Menopause’s link to heart disease
Research is ongoing into why, exactly, menopausal women have a higher risk of heart disease than premenopausal women. Menopause cannot cause disease itself, but it does bring about changes that can increase the risk for it. While there is much left to be discovered, experts have determined that a lack of estrogen is linked to women’s heart disease risk.
Estrogen is a key element of heart health. The hormone helps keep blood vessels flexible, so blood flow remains unrestricted and healthy. After menopause, when estrogen levels are much lower, blood vessels are at a greater risk for rigidity. It’s believed that estrogen also helps regulate cholesterol, so blood cholesterol levels tend to rise after estrogen is depleted.
Other changes, such as high blood pressure, weight gain and fat redistribution around the abdominal organs and heart, also tend to occur during the menopause transition. These things, too, increase your risk for heart disease over time.
Together, all of these pieces contribute to an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes after menopause. This may also explain why women who undergo early menopause have a higher risk for heart disease and other health problems than women who experience menopause closer to the average age.
Heart disease prevention should begin before menopause
In the past, doctors would focus on addressing problems like heart disease when symptoms began to appear in menopausal women. However, thanks to a better understanding of the links between menopause and heart disease, prevention is becoming more of a priority for healthcare providers and patients. New research now suggests that the period of transition before menopause—also called perimenopause—is when heart disease prevention should be prioritized heavily.
It’s important to remember that the menopause transition is not a singular event—rather, it’s a lengthy process during which hormones fluctuate and the body undergoes a series of changes. This transitional period and the changes that occur during it are risk factors that should be taken into consideration. Women shouldn’t wait until heart problems develop later in life to treat them. Perimenopause is a critical time for intervention, and acting early may reduce stress and health problems later on.
Even more research is helping healthcare providers understand how to spot heart disease risk. For example, if you experience severe symptoms like hot flashes during menopause, these might be indicative of an increased risk for heart disease. Research has shown that women who experience two or more moderate or severe menopause symptoms have up to a 40-percent higher risk for strokes and heart attacks. Paying attention to these symptoms may help women and their physicians address heart health sooner than when they “officially” enter menopause.
How to reduce your risk for heart disease in menopause
Whether you have yet to begin perimenopause or are experiencing your perimenopausal transition now, you should pay more attention to your heart health. Scheduling regular checkups with your doctor can help you monitor your risk factors for heart disease, including blood pressure, blood cholesterol and weight gain. By monitoring when these things change, you can begin to treat them early, potentially reducing your risk for disease later.
You may have heard that hormone replacement therapy can reduce your risk of disease, but this has not been proven yet. It’s possible that hormone therapy during perimenopause might reduce heart disease risk, but more research is needed in this area.
However, there are many proven lifestyle changes you should make to keep your heart healthy. Exercising a minimum of 150 minutes per week can improve cardiovascular health and minimize heart disease risk. So can cutting back on processed and sugary foods and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Women nearing menopause should also take care to reduce risky habits and behaviors, including smoking, excessive drinking, sleep deprivation and high stress.
Healthy heart, happy life
Menopause is often a stressful time for women, and the last thing you need is additional stress from disease! By taking a stand against heart disease early, you can protect your health and ensure you live a long and happy life after menopause.