How Menopause Impacts Your Heart Healthby Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D. Health Professional
Menopause is when a woman stops having periods. Usually, this occurs between 45-55 years of age. As your body prepares for menopause, there is a transitional period known as perimenopause that can last up to 10 years. Changes during this time can impact the health of your entire body, including your heart. Understanding menopause symptoms and associated treatments will help you understand the potential for risks to your heart health.
What Are the Symptoms of Menopause?
Menopause occurs when a woman has not had her period in a year. The leadup to menopause can come with symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, irregular bleeding and cycles, and vaginal dryness, to name a few. These symptoms are caused by the decrease in estrogen in a woman’s body. This decrease is a normal part of the aging process. It is also common to have a period of more rapid bone loss in the first 4-8 years after menopause.
What Treatments Are Available for Menopause Symptoms?
Many women do not require treatment for menopause symptoms, but if you do require treatment, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a common option. HRT can be taken orally, as a skin gel or spray, or in patches. Each of these have their own benefits of treatment. Luckily, many of the common symptoms of menopause can be treated with the same medication.
Does Menopause Increase the Risks of Heart Disease?
There is an increase in heart disease and cardiovascular events in women during menopause. The estrogen and progesterone produced in the earlier reproductive years was protective against heart attacks and stroke. So, as these hormones decrease after menopause, the risks of these diseases naturally increase for all women.
How Does Taking Hormone Replacement Therapy Alter the Risks?
In 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative Trials showed that the risks outweighed the benefits of hormone replacement therapy. However, more recent studies say that if a woman has reached menopause at a normal age, and is within 10 years of menopause, HRT may be an acceptable treatment. As more and more research shows that women aged 50-59 benefit from HRT, more physicians are willing to prescribe it, despite the earlier studies.
What Can I Do Besides Hormone Replacement Therapy?
While HRT may be right for you, not all women are good candidates nor want to take hormones. There are other medications to treat symptoms of menopause, like paroxetine, gabapentin, and antidepressants for hot flashes. There are also plant-based sources of estrogens, phytoestrogens, and herbal remedies, but studies have yet to prove they are helpful. Many women still flock to these treatments. Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbal treatments you are trying.
What About Early Menopause?
It appears that early menopause can actually increase your risk of heart disease. This risk is even higher if you smoke. Therefore, it is advised that you quit smoking. If you think you’re experiencing early menopause (before age 45), be sure to see your doctor for a discussion of risk factors and how you can decrease the risk of heart disease.
Will My Exercise Requirements Change After Menopause?
One of the best things that you can do for your heart health after menopause is exercise. This can help stave off many of the complications post-menopause, including obesity, bone loss, and heart disease. Moderate exercise may also help with symptoms like insomnia and sleep quality during and after menopause. Body fat distribution may also increase the risks.
The Role of Nutrition in Heart Health After Menopause
As your body fat distribution may change (with more abdominal fat) and your weight typically increases during menopause, there is an increased risk in heart diseases. This can be attributed to a low quality diet in postmenopausal women. Women should increase their intake of vegetables and eat a wide variety of healthy foods to help maintain their heart health during midlife.
Heart Attacks Look Different in Women
It is important to realize that even the healthiest of women may experience a heart attack. Knowing that women have different signs and symptoms of heart attacks than men do can be the difference between surviving or dying. Talk to your doctor regularly about your risk factors, signs and symptoms you may experience, and when you should seek care or call 911.
The Bottom Line
While your risks of heart disease increase as you reach menopause, there are things that you can do to mitigate these risks as well as manage the symptoms. With proper diet, exercise, and preventive care, you can live a full and healthy life after menopause.