The Link between Menopause and Heart Disease

New research from Northwestern Medical Center reveals that a woman's risk for heart disease increases significantly after menopause.

New research from Northwestern Medical Center reveals that a woman’s risk for heart disease increases significantly after menopause.

According to Vera Rigolin, MD, associate director of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health in the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute of Northwestern Medical Center: “Many women younger than 50 have not yet gone through menopause and still have high levels of the female hormone estrogen in their blood, which is thought to help protect the heart. After menopause, however, the levels of estrogen in a woman’s body drop significantly and can contribute to the higher risks of cardiovascular disease.”

In addition to estrogen, weight gain may also be a factor in a women’s postmenopausal risk for heart disease. The weight gain can be died to the decrease in hormone levels and may lead to physical inactivity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Rigolin encourages women to be proactive about their heart health after menopause, adding that heart disease can be more difficult to detect in women compared to men because “they commonly have other, more subtle symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, jaw pain and general discomfort in the chest and abdominal area.” Although women can present with chest pain during a heart attack, Rigolin said, that sign is more obvious in men.

“In some women, plaque can build in the smallest blood vessels called the microvascular circulation. These blockages do not show up in an angiogram,” said Rigolin. “In these cases, we often use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) with medication to visualize blood flow within the small blood vessels when other standard tests do not provide us answers.”

The researcher also provided suggestions for women to become more conscious about their heart health.

"If you are a smoker, quit immediately and avoid second hand smoke,” Rigolin said. “Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and exercise at least three times per week to maintain a healthy body weight.”