Today is International Menopause Day and this year’s theme is Cardiovascular Disease, which is an umbrella term for conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels, such as coronary heart disease and stroke.
While cardiovascular disease is often thought to be more of a men’s health issue, it is actually the leading cause of death of women in Ireland and worldwide. In 2021 over 4,000 Irish women died from cardiovascular disease. This is according to Croi who are a heart and stroke charity based in Galway. In addition, the risk of heart attack is five times higher post-menopause. The reason for such a high number is thought to be because estrogen has an important protective role for our heart and as we age it declines.
For context the average age for perimenopause symptoms to begin is roughly between 40-44yrs however symptoms can start earlier. It is the time when you still have periods (even if irregular). Menopause is when it’s been 12 months or more since your last period. The average age is 51yrs.
When estrogen falls during the perimenopause and menopause, the cholesterol in our blood often rises, which can lead to fatty deposits building up inside the large blood vessels. This narrowing of the arteries can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Estrogen also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the lining of the blood vessels and increases the levels of chemicals that protect our heart and blood vessels. However, as we age, the blood vessels can become stiffer, which is caused by high blood pressure. This is another risk factor associated with heart attacks and stroke.
What other types of heart-related symptoms can we experience during the perimenopause and menopause?
Many women report during the perimenopause and menopause that they become particularly aware of their heart beating and that their heart rate can feel irregular or particularly fast.
This can be described as heart palpitations, which can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. They can coincide with a hot flush or a night sweat, a dizzy spell or happen on their own.
Palpitations can be due to changing or declining levels of estrogen, which can affect the pathways in your heart through which electrical impulses travel. While they can feel alarming, in most cases they are usually harmless. But you should see a healthcare professional if you are worried, or if your palpitations last for more than several minutes, are accompanied by shortness of breath or chest pain, or you notice they are becoming more severe and/or frequent, or if they haven’t resolved within three months of starting HRT. Here are some key symptoms of heart disease in women, which can differ from those in men:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue or extreme tiredness
- Nausea or dizziness
- Pain in the jaw, neck, or throat
- Sweating, cold sweats, or clamminess.
On a positive note, there are several proactive steps women are perimenopausal and menopausal can take to help avoid heart disease:
- Maintain a balanced and nutritious diet, low in saturated and trans fats. And high in fibre and protein.
- Stay physically active with regular exercise like walking, swimming, cycling, running or gardening. Incorporate some strength or resistance training such as Reformer Pilates, HIIT, or weight lifting into your exercise regime at least 2 sessions per week is optimal.
- Manage stress levels through techniques such as meditation, walking in nature, cold water immersion or simply engaging in your favourite hobbies.
- Avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption.
- Regularly monitor blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
- Discuss hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or other menopause-related treatments with a healthcare professional.
Remember, it’s never too early (or too late) to prioritise your heart’s health. Let’s support and encourage one another during this life stage and beyond!