How prevalent is heart disease among women?
Cardiovascular disease is NOT just a man’s disease. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in women over age 25 in the United States, regardless of race or ethnicity. Once a woman reaches the age of 50, (about the age of natural menopause) the risk for heart disease increases. In young women who have undergone early or surgical menopause, the risk for heart disease is also higher, especially when combined with other risk factors such as:
- High blood pressure
- Elevated LDL (low density lipoproteins) cholesterol
- Low HDL (high density lipoproteins), sometimes called "good" cholesterol
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Family history of heart disease
What is menopause?
Menopause is a normal stage in a woman's life. The term menopause is commonly used to describe any of the changes a woman experiences either before or after she stops menstruating. As menopause nears, the ovaries gradually produce less estrogen (a female hormone), causing changes in the menstrual cycle and other physical changes. The most common symptoms of menopause are hot flashes, night sweats, emotional changes, and changes in the vagina (dryness and atrophy or thinning of the vaginal walls).
Technically, menopause is the end of a woman's reproductive cycle, when the ovaries no longer produce eggs and she has her last menstrual cycle. The diagnosis of menopause is not confirmed until a woman has not had her period for12 consecutive months. Menopause usually occurs naturally in women between ages 45 and 55. However, loss of estrogen also can occur if the ovaries are removed during surgery or if a woman goes through early menopause.
How is heart disease associated with menopause?
- Estrogen helps a younger woman's body protect her against heart disease.
- Changes occur in the walls of the blood vessels, making it more likely for plaque and blood clots to form.
- Changes in the level of lipids (fats) in the blood occur.
- An increase in fibrinogen (a substance in the blood that helps the blood to clot) occurs. Increased levels of blood fibrinogen are related to heart disease and stroke.
What can be done to reduce the risk of heart disease for menopausal women?
First and foremost, "traditional" risk factors should be addressed. Women with the lowest risk of heart disease are those who:
- Avoid or quit smoking
- Lose weight and/or maintain their ideal body weight
- Participate in aerobic exercise for 30 to 40 minutes, three to five times per week
- Follow a diet low in saturated fat (<7 percent daily amount); low in trans-fat (partially hydrogenated fats such as margarine or shortening); and high in fiber, whole grains, legumes (such as beans and peas), fruits, vegetables, fish, and folate-rich foods
- Treat and control medical conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure that are known risk factors for heart disease
For many years, preliminary observational research showed that HT could possibly reduce the risk of heart disease in women. It appears that the reason the observational studies showed women on HT had less heart disease was likely due to the lifestyles of women who take HT, rather than the medical benefits of HT itself.
More recent studies of women, such as the Heart and Estrogen/progestin Replacement Study (HERS) and the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) showed that there is an increased risk of heart disease in older women who started HT many years after menopause. The age stratified data showed evidence of lower coronary heart disease risk in women who used HT ≥ 5 yr, when initiated in a younger and more recent postmenopausal population. Women who participated in the WHI showed an increased risk of breast cancer (in the estrogen-progestin arm), strokes, blood clots and gall bladder disease. Based on the results of these studies, HT is not indicated for cardiovascular risk reduction. There are other risks and benefits that come from HT. It is important to discuss the risks and benefits of HT with your own doctor before making a decision.
What exactly is HT?
Hormone therapy (HT) is a treatment program in which a woman takes estrogen with or without progestin (a synthetic form of progesterone). To decrease the risk of uterine cancer in women who have a uterus, progestin is usually prescribed with estrogen.
What are the benefits of HT?
Hormone therapy has many benefits for post-menopausal women, including:
- Increased elasticity of the blood vessels, allowing them to dilate (widen) and let the blood flow more freely throughout the body
- Improved short-term symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes as well as vaginal dryness, dry skin, sleeplessness, and irritable bladder symptoms
- Decreased incidence of colon cancer
- Decreased risk of osteoporosis and fractures (broken bones)
- Possible decreased incidence of Alzheimer's disease
- Possible improvement of glucose levels
Is HT safe?
Short-term hormone therapy is safe for most menopausal women who take HT for symptom control. However, before HT is prescribed, make sure you review your medical history with your health care provider. Together, you and your health care provider can decide if you have conditions or inherited health risks that would make HT unsafe for you. HT is not recommended for women who have:
- History of prior heart attack or stroke, and/or increased risk for stroke
- Unexplained vaginal bleeding Active or past breast cancer
- Active liver disease
- Endometrial cancer
- Gall bladder disease
- High risk for blood clots or a history of blood clots
What are the risks of HT?
The health risks of HT include:
- Increased risk of endometrial cancer (only when estrogen is taken without progestin). For women who have had a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), this is not a problem.
- Increased risk of breast cancer with long-term use
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart attack)
- Increase in inflammatory markers (such as C-reactive protein)
- Increased risk of blood clots and stroke, especially during the first year of use in susceptible women
All women taking hormone therapy should have regular gynecological exams (including a PAP smear). The American Cancer Society also recommends that women over age 40 should:
- Have a breast physical examination by her health care provider once a year
- Have a mammogram once a year
What are the side effects of HT?
About 5 percent to 10 percent of women treated with HT have side effects that might include breast tenderness, fluid retention, and mood swings. In most cases, these side effects are mild and do not require the woman to stop HT.
If you have bothersome side effects from HT, talk to your doctor. He or she often can reduce these side effects by changing the type and dosage of estrogen and/or progestin.
If your uterus is intact and you take progestin, monthly vaginal bleeding is likely to occur. If it will bother you to have your monthly menstrual cycle, discuss this with your health care provider.
Is HT the same as birth control?
No. Although women who take birth control pills are also taking estrogen and progestin, the effect is not the same. Women who take birth control pills have not been through menopause and need higher levels of hormones to prevent ovulation. HT is not a high enough strength to stop ovulation.
After menopause, estrogen levels are low, and HT is used at a low dose to restore hormone levels to a more normal level.
How do I decide if HT is right for me?
Even the best candidates for HT need to periodically evaluate if HT is the right treatment for them. You and your health care provider should discuss your medical history and risk factors, as well as how HT can be tailored to your needs.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself and discuss with your physician:
- Am I experiencing difficult menopause symptoms?
- Do I have any medical conditions or a family history of certain conditions that might make HT beneficial for me?
- Do I have any medical conditions or a family history of certain conditions that might make HT riskier for me?
- Have I considered alternatives to HT?
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 6/20/2011…#4262