En español | Hot flashes may be more than an annoying symptom of menopause. The waves of intense heat and flushed cheeks could be a warning sign of health problems down the road, according to new research.
A study released at the North American Menopause Society's (NAMS) annual meeting this week found that women who experience frequent and persistent hot flashes may be at greater risk for heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular disease conditions later in life.
The 20-year study followed more than 3,000 women and found that participants who experienced frequent hot flashes earlier in menopause were twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease events. In addition, those who reported more persistent hot flashes over the course of the transition were associated with an 80 percent increased risk for cardiovascular disease events.
Rebecca Thurston, lead author on the study, called the magnitude of the increased risks “substantial,” but doesn't want the results to scare women. Rather, she sees the research as a call to action for women in their 40s and 50s to work on minimizing their risks for cardiovascular disease.
"What we do know, likely at a minimum, is that the [hot flashes] are telling us something about the health of women's cardiovascular systems, and that really they need to be engaging in positive health behaviors,” said Thurston, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
"So often during midlife, in particular, women are juggling a lot of different things — whether it's children, aging parents, work. They're not prioritizing their own health."
Stephanie Faubion, medical director of NAMS, said those who are near, or going through, menopause should know their health-related numbers — especially since heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S.
"We need to understand what their blood pressure is, what their cholesterol is, what their blood sugar is, what their weight is, what their exercise/lifestyle habits are, what their diet is like,” Faubion said. “We should use this time to take stock of our own health and our own risks and then take action, if needed.”
Faubion also said providers shouldn't be quick to dismiss menopause symptoms in patients, adding, “Women shouldn't just be patted on the head and sent out the door.”
Hot flashes are one of the most common symptoms of menopause. As many as three-fourths of women experience hot flashes, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office on Women's Health, and some studies show they can last a decade or more.
It's unknown whether medications that help treat the symptoms of hot flashes may also reduce one's risk for heart attack, stroke and heart failure, but “that's the research we need to do,” Thurston said.
Additional research unveiled at this week's NAMS meeting found a link between menopausal night sweats in women with a history of breast cancer and cognitive dysfunction. Researchers found that study participants who experienced more frequent night sweats had a longer sleep duration, and increased sleep in these women made them more vulnerable to prefrontal cortex deficits, such as decreased attention and executive function.
"I think this is just strengthening the finding that hot flashes and night sweats are not necessarily benign, and I think this is a misconception that has been perpetuated for years and years among women and their providers who say, ‘Oh, go home and you'll be fine. Hot flashes aren't going to kill you.’ But indeed, they may be a marker of something more serious that's going on, particularly in some women,” Faubion said.