The "heart" truth about menopause

Between the hot flashes and mood swings, it's understandable that many middle-age women would find menopause a force to be reckoned with. Adding insult to injury, the mere onset of menopause can leave an otherwise healthy heart in a vulnerable state.

"We think younger women are protected by the female hormone estrogen, which is produced at much higher levels until we reach menopause," says Malgorzata (Margo) Kozinski, MD, medical director at PeaceHealth Southwest's Heart & Vascular Center and interventional cardiologist at Cascade Heart, PS. "When you compare groups of middle-age women, heart disease rates are two to three times higher for those going through menopause."

What's the risk?

What is it about menopause that causes a woman's risk of heart disease to spike significantly? In addition to reduced estrogen levels, there's plenty of evidence to show that more women than men develop high blood pressure and high cholesterol when they reach middle age. Menopause increases the levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. It also decreases the levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol.

"Women need to ask themselves if there are lifestyle changes they can make to help protect their hearts," says Dr. Kozinski. "Let's face it — aging and menopause are inevitable, so we have to look at the things we can control, like eating habits, exercise, and smoking cessation."

And don't kid yourself into believing the myth that heart disease is a man's disease. Over a lifetime, two out of five women will die of cardiovascular disease, making it the leading cause of death in women. In fact, heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined.

What can I do?

The good news is that many risk factors can be modified in time to prevent serious damage to the heart. Dropping just a few pounds, even if you are seriously overweight, can significantly reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Research shows that obese women who lost 6.5 percent of their body weight during a six-month program — that's just 13 pounds for a 200-pound woman — succeeded in lowering their blood pressure and cholesterol.

Dr. Kozinski says, "Because it's not always easy to lose weight, just remember that eating a low-calorie diet and increasing your level of activity will still go a long way toward helping your heart."

Published July/August 2009, Southwest Health
Margo Kozinski, MD
PeaceHealth Southwest
Heart & Vascular Center
200 NE Mother Joseph Pl.
Suite 400
Vancouver, WA 98664
(360) 514-4444