Menopause means saying goodbye to birth control, tampons, and some other "friends" women get close with during their fertile years. But it can also mean saying hello to something else: a higher risk of heart disease.
Like men, a woman's risk for heart disease increases with age. But that risk increases even more for women when they start menopause.
Menopause doesn't cause heart disease, but here's why it raises your risk
Menopause is when a woman's menstrual period stops as she gets older. This happens because her ovaries stop producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
This decline in estrogen is thought to be a major factor in why women have a greater risk of developing heart disease once they are post-menopausal.
Heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, and it has killed more women than men each year since 1984.
However, it's not that menopause causes heart disease. Rather, menopause causes several things to change in a woman's physiology, and some of those changes can then impact the heart.
The lipid profile of women starts to change during this time and cholesterol begins to rise, which puts them at a higher risk of heart disease.
At the same time, blood pressure also begins to rise. This increase is usually age-related, but when combined with increased cholesterol, it can greatly increase a woman's risk of heart disease.
How do you reduce your heart disease risk during menopause?
There are steps you can take to go through the changes of menopause without developing a heart condition. They include:
Yes, anyone can benefit from eating healthy. But that's especially true for women in menopause because they're at a higher risk for developing heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends eating a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and skinless poultry and fish. A healthy diet is also low on sodium, saturated fat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
It's recommended that women get around 45 to 50 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week. Aerobic exercise can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure.
Knowing your numbers
One of the most effective ways to prevent heart disease is to know important numbers for your heart—like your blood pressure and cholesterol—to see if you have risk factors that need to be addressed. For instance, high cholesterol can be both diet-controlled and medication-controlled, depending on the severity.
So, getting regular checkups can help you monitor the health of your heart as you go through menopause.
You should also be mindful of your stress levels. A stressful lifestyle can worsen things like high blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.
Finding ways to relieve any stress you might feel—whether that be doing yoga or reading—can improve your overall cardiovascular health.
Limiting hormone replacement therapy
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can relieve some of the symptoms that occur with menopause, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. The medications give a woman's body adequate levels of estrogen and other hormones.
Studies about hormone replacement therapy have found that it can also increase a woman's chances of having a stroke or heart attack.
Therefore hormone replacement therapy is not recommended for prevention of heart disease. It might, however, still be reasonable to use it as a short-term method to treat menopause symptoms.
Kicking the smoking habit
Smoking increases your risk of heart disease whether you're menopausal or not, but the stakes are much higher for women in general.
Considering that menopause already increases your heart disease risk, you're better off quitting smoking or never starting.
The bottom line: Menopause might be a natural stage in a woman's life, but heart disease doesn't have to be. Learn more about how you can minimize your risk for heart disease during menopause.