Women who have a healthier lifestyle during the menopausal transition could significantly reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease, new research suggests.
Because women experience a steeper increase in CVD risk during and after the menopausal transition, researchers analyzed data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), a prospective longitudinal cohort study of 1,143 women aged 42-52 years. The report is in JAHA: Journal of the American Heart Association.
The analysis revealed that women with the highest average Healthy Lifestyle Score – a composite score of dietary quality, levels of physical activity, and smoking – over 10 years of follow-up had a 0.024-mm smaller common carotid artery intima-media thickness and 0.16-mm smaller adventitial diameter, compared to those with the lowest average score. This was after adjustment for confounders and physiological risk factors such as ethnicity, age, menopausal status, body mass index, and cholesterol levels.
“Smoking, unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activity are three well-known modifiable behavioral risk factors for CVD,” wroteof the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his coauthors. “Even after adjusting for the lifestyle-related physiological risk factors, the adherence to a healthy lifestyle composed of abstinence from smoking, healthy diet, and regular engagement in physical activity is inversely associated with atherosclerosis in midlife women.”
Women with higher average health lifestyle score also had lower levels of carotid plaque after adjustment for confounding factors, but this was no longer significant after adjustment for physiological risk factors.
The authors analyzed the three components of the healthy lifestyle score separately, and found that not smoking was strongly and significantly associated with lower scores for all three measures of subclinical atherosclerosis. Women who never smoked across the duration of the study had a 49% lower odds of having a high carotid plaque index compared with women who smoked at some point during the follow-up period.
The analysis showed an inverse association between average Alternate Healthy Eating Index score – a measure of diet quality – and smaller common carotid artery adventitial diameter, although after adjustment for BMI this association was no longer statistically significant. Likewise, the association between dietary quality and intima-media thickness was only marginally significant and lost that significance after adjustment for BMI.
Long-term physical activity was only marginally significantly associated with common carotid artery intima-media thickness, but this was not significant after adjustment for physiological risk factors. No association was found between physical activity and common carotid artery adventitial diameter or carotid plaque.
The authors said that 1.7% of the study population managed to stay in the top category for all three components of healthy lifestyle at all three follow-up time points in the study.
“The low prevalence of a healthy lifestyle in midlife women highlights the potential for lifestyle interventions aimed at this vulnerable population,” they wrote.
In particular, they highlighted abstinence from smoking as having the strongest impact on all three measures of subclinical atherosclerosis, which is known to affect women more than men. However, the outcomes from diet and physical activity weren’t so strong: The authors suggested that BMI could partly mediate the effects of healthier diet and greater levels of physical activity.
One strength of the study was its ethnically diverse population, which included African American, Chinese, and Hispanic women in addition to non-Hispanic white women. However, the study was not powered to examine the impacts ethnicity may have had on outcomes, the researchers wrote.
The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation is supported by the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were declared.
SOURCE: Wang D et al. JAHA 2018 Nov. 28.