If you’re getting close to menopause, you’re probably not looking forward to annoying symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats. But you may not realize that there’s a bigger health concern: a higher risk for heart disease.
Doctors have known for a while that the risk for heart attacks and strokes in women after menopause is greater than for women before menopause. Data suggest that the transition between these two life stages, called perimenopause, is where problems begin, according to a new consensus statement from the American Heart Association in the journal Circulation. This stage of life can last anywhere from 3 to 10 years.
During this transition, the female hormone, estrogen, which protects the heart, starts to decline. As a result, women lose muscle mass and gain body fat. This fat tends to collect around the waist and to surround the heart and liver.
In addition, blood vessels start to get stiffer and contain harmful plaque. Women may also begin to have unhealthy changes in their cholesterol levels and develop high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and other metabolic patterns that may lead to heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.
Women are often diagnosed with these conditions after menopause. But, according to the research in the consensus statement, these problems often start developing much earlier.
This connection is even more worrying in women who experience menopause before age 40, so much so that early menopause is now considered a Risk-Enhancing Factor in the 2018 American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol. A 2019 study in the journal Lancet Public Health shows that women starting menopause before age 40 were 5 times more likely than those over 50 to have a heart attack or stroke, and women between ages 40 and 44 were 3 times more likely to experience a heart problem.
That’s why it’s important to practice prevention well before you stop having periods. If you are starting the transition to menopause, it’s a good time to get a checkup. Be sure your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol are at healthy levels.
In addition, take stock of your daily habits. To keep your heart healthy as you age, follow these steps:
Eat a healthy diet
The Mediterranean Diet and similar eating patterns are best for your heart. These include eating lots of plant-based foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. Choose mostly lean sources of protein, such as fish and poultry. Use heart-healthy fats like olive and canola oils. And eat as few processed foods as possible. Foods sold in cans and packages often have unhealthy amounts of sugar, salt, and saturated fat.
Just 30 minutes a day of moderate activity, such as walking, most days of the week is enough to keep your heart healthy. If OK with your doctor, then aim for more time or greater intensity to really give your heart a boost.
Break the cigarette habit
If you smoke, it’s more important than ever to stop. Support is available by calling the Quit Smoking Hotline at 1-877-44U-QUIT (1-877-448-7848).
Get proper rest
Sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night is best for your overall health and your heart.
Let go of stress
Lower high levels of tension by practicing yoga, taking up meditation, spending time in nature, or just playing soothing music. Do something each day to find peace and calm.
Take prescribed drugs
If you have conditions like high blood sugar, prediabetes, or diabetes; high blood pressure; or high cholesterol, you may need medication. Be sure to keep your prescriptions up-to-date and take the medications as directed by your doctor.
If you are just starting to make changes, try taking one step and make it a habit. Then take on a new challenge. The steps you take now will ensure a healthy heart now and for the rest of your life!