Women's Health

If You Experience These Changes in Your Period Before Menopause You May Be at Higher Risk of Heart Disease

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Many of us think of menopause as a sudden onset of symptoms. Hot flashes, night sweats, and mood swings increase all at once, right? In reality, they come on slowly and you may experience some much earlier than the onset of menopause, including with your period. New research shows that changes in the length of your menstrual cycle may also be an indicator of your overall health, and whether you are at risk of heart disease. Yes, there is a connection there!

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As you near menopause, you may find that the length of time between your periods becomes longer. Research from The Boston Medical Journal shows that long and irregular cycles during reproductive years may increase your risk for coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer, mental health conditions, and even death. 

While this news is grim, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh believed they could use this information in a positive way. In a study published in Menopause, they found that they could predict a person’s future cardiovascular health by analyzing changes in their cycle length.  

Studying Cycle Length in Perimenopausal Women 

To find the link between cardiovascular health and cycle length, the research team gathered data from the ongoing Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN). They focused in on women who were between 45 and 52 years old at the time of enrollment. The women also reported data for up to 10 years or until they were postmenopausal. In addition, the team made sure that the participants they analyzed had recorded dates for all their cycle lengths and the date of their final menstrual period. 

The researchers also studied data on the arterial stiffness or arterial thickness of each participant. This helped them assess cardiovascular risk after menopause. 

Upon examining all the data, the team determined that each woman experienced one of three cycle lengths during their transition into menopause. Approximately 62 percent of the participants had stable cycles. This meant that the length of their cycles didn’t change much before menopause. About 16 percent of the group experienced an early onset of long cycles, while 22 percent experienced a late onset of long cycles. The research team defined early onset as about five years before the final menstrual period and late onset as two years before the final menstrual period.  

Then, the researchers discovered an interesting connection to heart health. They noticed that women who experienced a late onset of long cycles had much healthier arteries in terms of hardness and thickness. This was in comparison to the women who had stable cycles. In effect, the women with a late onset of long cycles were had a very low risk of heart disease.

In contrast, the women who had an early onset of long cycles had poor arterial health. As a result, they were at a higher risk of heart disease. (The researchers did note that they weren’t sure why heart disease risk was higher in participants with stable cycles.)  

The Link Between Heart Health and Menstrual Cycles 

Menstrual cycles may have much more to do with cardiovascular health than we previously thought. According to the research team, the length of a menstrual cycle reflects different levels of hormones in the body. Hormonal changes and imbalances not only cause longer periods, but also create heart problems. Lower levels of estrogen can lead to an increase in “bad” LDL cholesterol and a decrease in “good” HDL cholesterol. Higher levels of testosterone may also increase the risk of coronary heart disease and heart failure.  

So, what’s the good news? The research from Menopause should help doctors customize their treatments for menopausal women. Rather than grouping all menopausal women together, the study authors hope that clinicians will create personal treatment strategies. For instance, a woman who experiences long menstrual cycles early on should have her heart and arterial health checked. Doctors might also recommend daily exercise and a cardiac diet, or a diet low in sodium, fat, and cholesterol.

If you suspect that you are experiencing an early onset of long cycles, or that you did before you entered menopause, talk to your doctor. A visit to the gynecologist or the cardiologist, or both, could never hurt.  

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