Why Your Heart Needs Extra Love After Menopause

Estrogen drop increases heart disease risk for older women

Why Your Heart Needs Extra Love After Menopause

You likely know that lifestyle choices like smoking and inactivity affect heart attack risk for men and women. But you may not realize that, for women, hormones also play a role when it comes to heart health.

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Estrogen is your friend

Estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, has a positive effect on your blood pressure and cholesterol, and both are beneficial when it comes to heart disease.

“Estrogen is a great benefit to the heart,” says Leslie Cho, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic’s Women’s Cardiovascular Center. “The reason that women tend to develop heart disease 10 years later than men is estrogen.”

It makes sense, then, that the onset of menopause and the resulting decrease in estrogen can boost your risk of heart disease. And hormone replacement therapy (HRT) might seem like an obvious solution — but Dr. Cho urges caution.

“There’s never been a study that shows that HRT makes you live longer,” she says. “In fact, the opposite’s been shown. It increases your risk of blood clots and cancer.”

Dr. Cho recommends that at most HRT be used as a short-term treatment to deal with the unpleasant effects of menopause.

RELATED: Ladies: Is Estrogen Your Heart’s BFF or Archenemy?

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Hormones behind heart palpitations?

One of the other ways that hormonal changes can affect your heart is by causing palpitations. Women often become anxious when they feel their hearts fluttering, but Dr. Cho says palpitations typically are nothing to worry about.

“During menopause, women often experience heart palpitations,” she says. “Women also often experience palpitations during or after birth, or during breast feeding. Some people feel like they experience more palpitations at certain points in their menstrual cycle. But it’s very benign.”

The sensation that palpitations cause is sometimes alarming, but they don’t actually tell you anything about your heart health, she says. Try cutting back on caffeine if you find palpitations uncomfortable, though.

RELATED: Heart Palpitations Can Be Scary, But Don’t Always Signal a Problem

Your heart and your monthly cycle

There is some evidence that there’s a relationship between heart health and your menstrual cycle.

One study has shown that women who have regular menstrual cycles are at lower risk for heart disease than women who don’t. Another small study found that women are at higher risk for myocardial ischemia (reduced blood flow to the heart) right after they complete their menstrual period — when estrogen levels are at their lowest.

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Hormonal contraceptives can play a role, too. “There are people who have genetic cholesterol defects in whom oral contraceptives really negatively affect their cholesterol level,” says Dr. Cho.

Managing your risk

While estrogen does play a protective role when it comes to heart health, there are other factors that are more important. Quitting smoking, getting regular exercise and eating a nutritious diet are all steps that are proven to significantly reduce the risk of heart attack.

Be grateful for the benefits of estrogen, but don’t rely on it to keep your heart healthy — especially after menopause.

RELATED: Women: Don’t Ignore These 3 Subtle Heart Attack Symptoms

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