Heart disease is an ailment found almost equally in both men and women. But, due to menopause women have a unique set of factors which can lead to an increase in heart disease. In addition, women experience different heart attack symptoms than men. For women it is of the utmost importance to know their risk factors, signs and symptoms of heart disease in order to live a full, healthy life.
Menopause transition (MT) represents the transition to a nonreproductive phase of life with cessation of ovarian function. This comes with hormonal changes as well as physiological and psychological changes. The evidence shows that cardiovascular disease risk among women is accelerated during this phase. Menopause is not the single cause of cardiovascular diseases in women. However, the combination of existent risk factors and menopause can increase the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Modifiable risk factors include unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, eating a high-fat unbalanced diet and inactivity. Risk factors which unfortunately cannot be changed include family medical history and genetics. Women should be aware of the role that menopause plays in their risk of suffering a myocardial infarction (heart attack), stroke and heart failure all of which increase their mortality.
A decrease in the hormone estrogen during post menopause could increase a woman’s chance of heart disease. Studies have shown estrogen can help the interior layer of the body’s arterial walls by aiding in vasodilatation (decreasing vascular tone). This aids in proper blood flow to the heart and brain. When the ability to expand and relax while adapting to circulation influx due to hardened arteries is compromised, this can lead to narrowing or a blockage leading to a serious cardiac ailment.
Studies have also shown menopause can also lead to hypertension or high blood pressure as well as high cholesterol. These studies demonstrate that several lipid parameters increase considerably within a brief time span from the year before to the year after the final menstrual period. Specifically there is an increase in low density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad cholesterol” as well as high density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good cholesterol” to regress or level. Fats within blood known as triglycerides can also increase during menopause. These changes in lipids have been connected with fatty accumulations in artery walls increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
If you have any of these signs, call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away. Heart attack symptoms in women as listed by the American Heart Association:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
What can women do to achieve better heart health?
Women should schedule an appointment to talk with their doctor to build an understanding of the connection between menopause, risk factors, family history and genetics which could lead to heart disease. A woman’s primary care doctor or cardiologist will suggest some healthy lifestyle changes which can be achieved. The American Heart Association’s website also has helpful Strive for Heart Health guidelines listed below:
- Start exercising – make it a habit to achieve 30-minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week. Start gradually every other day with an activity like walking. Then, when you’re ready for more of a challenge or to change it up add in bicycling or cycling, dancing or swimming. Find an activity or participate in activities which work best for your health goals.
- Refrain from smoking which can lead to early menopause, blood clots and reduce the flexibility of arteries to properly circulate healthy blood flow. Avoid secondhand smoke.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet. The American Heart Association recommends a dietary pattern emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, while limiting red meat and sugary foods and beverages.