Women experience arterial stiffness before and after menopause, which effects their heart health significantly.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on February 12, 2020. It has since been updated.
Menopause is a difficult phase in a woman's life. It comes with multiple symptoms that can feel very inconvenient, including hormonal changes. But, there is another change which this phase brings and it can go undetected easily since it's internal. New research has shown that women close to menopause and those who have recently gone through it are likely to go through metabolic and vascular changes, which could increase the risk of heart disease.
The new analysis from the largest and longest-running study of women’s health in midlife, the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) also shows that African women face a higher chance of heart disease than white women. According to the research team, led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, the new analysis adds to growing evidence that women and their doctors should focus on better heart health during midlife. The results will appear in the March issue of Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, a journal of the American Heart Association.
The results of the study, Arterial Stiffness Accelerates Within 1 Year of the Final Menstrual Period, showed that the first year post-menopause was a critical time for women since they would experience significant vascular functional alterations. "These findings underscore the importance of more intensive lifestyle modifications in women transitioning through menopause," the study read.
"Midlife is not just a period where women have hot flashes and experience other menopausal symptoms," said senior author Samar R. El Khoudary, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health said in a press release. "It’s a time when their cardiovascular disease risk is increasing as we see significant changes in multiple clinical measures of their physical health."
The women studied were a subset of the longitudinal SWAN study. The analysis focussed on arterial stiffness, which refers to how elastic the arteries are that is measured by the speed of blood flowing through them. When people have stiffer arteries it can cause dysfunction in how well the heart pumps and moves blood. It can cause problems in the heart, kidneys, and other organs.
For the purpose of the study, women were studied for 12.5 years or until they reached menopause. They found that in the year before the last menstruation, arterial stiffness increased by about 0.9% on an average. It showed a considerable acceleration of about 7.5% within one year after the last period.
"Although there are limitations in our research, including the fact that a significant minority of women have had arterial stiffness measured only once, we still find that major cardiovascular changes occur around menopause," the lead author Saad Samargandy, M.P.H., a Ph.D. student at Pitt Public Health said in a press release.
The current study doesn't tell why these changes occur during the menopausal transition, El Khoudary said. "But we speculate that the dramatic hormonal changes accompanying menopause might play a role by increasing inflammation and affecting vascular fat deposition, a hypothesis that we would like to test in future studies," she added.
The researchers said that clinical trials will be needed to check if "lifestyle interventions, such as changes to diet or physical activity; medications, such as statins or hormone replacement therapy; or even increased screening and tracking of measures of heart health could be beneficial as women go through menopause." She added that it is important for women to be aware that "their cardiovascular health is likely to worsen as they go through menopause."
"Therefore, frequent monitoring of cardiovascular risk factors may be prudent, particularly in black women who are at even greater risk earlier in the menopausal transition," she added.