Give us a break. On top of all the physical and emotional storms that can come with menopause, it’s now time to also pay attention to our cardiovascular health? Yep, heart disease.
The stats are sobering: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for all women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Black women are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic white women, and 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, according to a study from the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Menopause does not directly cause heart disease, but as estrogen levels plummet, some people develop high blood pressure or high cholesterol as a result. But the hormonal changes of menopause can also contribute indirectly to your heart disease risk.
So let’s get on the beat. Here’s what you need to know about the connection between heart disease and menopause — and how to protect your heart health as you get older.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease is a category of conditions that affect the function and health of the heart. Some people have no symptoms, but problems with the heart or its arteries can eventually lead to serious, life-threatening emergencies, such as stroke, heart attack, or heart failure.
Certain factors can increase the risk of heart disease, such as high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), and type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle factors like smoking and excessive drinking can also increase the odds of heart disease and the complications that go with it.
The link between heart disease and menopause
Estrogen may be a sex hormone, but it plays a role in other important bodily functions. For example, estrogen is known to promote healthy blood flow and keep cholesterol down, in turn lowering the risk of developing heart disease.
During peri/menopause, as estrogen levels plummet, some people develop high blood pressure or cholesterol as a result. But the changes of menopause can also contribute indirectly to your heart disease risk.
Many people gain weight during menopause (Ed note: No shame, it happens), whether due to shifting hormones or life stress, which can increase the risk of heart disease later in life.
Preventing heart disease
Consider perimenopause or menopause to be a message from Mother Nature to start taking your heart health more seriously. Certain factors can’t be controlled, and some people have a genetic propensity to heart disease. If your parents or any other relatives suffered from heart disease or cardiac events, it’s important to stay in touch with your healthcare provider about your personal risk and how to lower it, especially after age 55.
Here are a few ways to kickstart your healthy heart plan:
Quit smoking. (We know it’s hard to quit, but we also know you can do it.)
Cut back on your alcohol intake. In addition to heart health, alcohol can make all your perimenopause and menopause symptoms even worse.
Add more greens to your plate. A more plant-based diet can dramatically lower your risk of heart disease.
Add 150 minutes of exercise to your week. Working up a sweat 20 minutes a day can go a long way.
Get better sleep. Perimenopause and menopause can wreak havoc on your sleep. Lighter, breathable bedding, shutting off your phone two hours before bed, keeping your bedroom dark and cool — all these things can help you at bedtime (and the next day).
You don’t have to upend your life for optimal heart health. But in making these tweaks and living a little more consciously, you may find yourself truly appreciating all the wonderful things your body can and will do for a long time to come.
By Ashley Abramson
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer primarily covering health, psychology, and relationships. She's been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. She lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband and two young sons.