Migraines are more than just bad headaches. They're a debilitating neurological condition that cause more than 90 percent of migraine sufferers to miss out on work or other normal activities. The condition affects one in every 10 people and occurs most often in women, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. In addition to causing throbbing or pulsating pain, new research published in The BMJ has found that migraines may increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke, and even death among women who experience them.

"Given the high prevalence of migraine in the general population, an urgent need exists to understand the biological processes involved and to provide preventive solutions for patients," researchers said.

A team of U.S. and German researchers looked at data from more than 115,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study II to evaluate the association between migraine, cardiovascular disease and mortality. Participants who were between  25 and 42 years old and free from angina and cardiovascular disease were followed from 1989 to 2011. About 15 percent of women reported a physician's diagnosis of migraine at baseline.

More than 1,300 of the women studied suffered from cardiovascular disease and 223 died as a result of the disease. Female migraine sufferers were at 50 percent greater risk for major cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes and angina/coronary revascularization procedures, than women who did not experience migraines. These risks remained even after adjusting for other risk factors for these diseases.

Migraines were also associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular death among women of many different ages and was true whether or not they smoked, had hypertension, took oral contraceptives or underwent postmenopausal hormone therapy. 

This isn’t the first time migraines have been associated with strokes. Migraine, specifically migraine with aura — headaches that are accompanied or followed by flashes of light, blind spots or tingling in the hands or feet — have been consistently associated with increased risk of stroke. One study found that migraines were linked to “silent stroke,” or ischemic brain infarction, in older patients. However, few studies have shown an association between migraine, cardiovascular diseases and mortality.

Migraines can lead to stroke by impairing blood vessel function and increasing the risk of blood clots and vascular risk factors.

The current study adds evidence that migraine should be considered an important risk marker for cardiovascular disease, researchers said. More research, however, is needed to determine possible causes of migraines, and whether treatments to prevent them could help reduce these associated cardiovascular risks.

Source: Kuth T, Winter A, Eliassen A, et al. Migraine and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in Women: Prospective Cohort Study. The BMJ. 2016.