No Link Between Menopause, Higher Risk of Fatal Heart Disease

Researchers at Johns Hopkins point out that aging alone, not the hormonal influence of menopause, is causing an increased number of death in women.

The medical community has long believed that post-menopausal women have an increased risk of cardiovascular death. New research from the university may point out that death by heart disease increased in a constant rate as women age, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

This new study results could impact how heart health is assessed in pre-menopausal women, who were previously believed to be at risk of death from heart attacks.

"Our data show there is no big shift toward higher fatal heart attack rates after menopause," says Dhananjay Vaidya, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the study's leader.

Menopause is the time in a woman's life when menstruation stops. It usually occurs naturally, most often after the age of 45. In menopause the ovary stops producing the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Symptoms and changes occur prior to menopause including Hot flashes, night sweats, trouble sleeping, and mood swings, among others.  A woman has reached menopause when she has not had a period for one year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers analyzing mortality statistics from people born in England and United States between 1916 and 1945 shows as similar groups of people aged, there were no increases in female mortality rates at the time of menopause beyond those that correspond with aging.

Also, the number of women who died of heart disease increased by 8 percent each year.

"The statistical death rate curve stays steady throughout life", said Vaidya "the absolute mortality - actual number of deaths - increased at all ages with no abrupt changes at menopause."

Researchers suggest studying the effects of aging on cells especially shrinking telomere length, could help to understand how gender differences affect mortality. Telomere is a segment at the end of each chromosome, consisting of series of repeated DNA sequences that regulate chromosomal replication at each cell division. Telomere length is shortened each time a cell divides, and eventually when the telomere is gone, the cell dies.

Vaidya said physicians need to assess cardiovascular health in women from an early age, institute healthy heart habits and preventive care.

"Special attention should be paid to heart health in women due to their overall lifetime risk," he says, "not just after the time of menopause."

"What we believe is going on is that the cells of the heart and arteries are aging like every other tissue in the body, and that is why we see more and more heart attacks every year as women age. Aging itself is an adequate explanation and the arrival of menopause with its altered hormonal impact does not seem to play a role."

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