Up to 10 different menopausal symptoms were linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease when they were moderate to severe in women who initially had no evidence of cardiovascular disease, according to research presented at the North American Menopause Society annual meeting in Atlanta.
“The take-home message is that severe menopausal symptoms may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease,”, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Heart and Vascular Institute at Penn State University, Hershey, said in an interview about his findings. “Physicians and patients should be aware of this association. Women with severe symptoms may be more likely to see their physician, and this would be an ideal time to have their cardiovascular risk assessed.”
, MD, a clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York University and at NYU Langone Health, noted that these findings lined up with other studies showing an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in patients who have more symptoms, especially hot flashes.
“Other recent studies showed that an increase in severity of hot flush is associated with worse blood vessel function, leading to heart disease,” Dr. Nachtigall, who was not involved with the study, said in an interview. “The next step that makes sense is to try to eliminate these symptoms and hope that, in turn, would lower cardiovascular disease and improve survival.”
The researchers compared menopausal symptoms with cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in an observational cohort of 80,278 postmenopausal women for a median 8.2 years of follow-up. None of the women, all enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, had known cardiovascular disease at baseline. They had an average age of 63 years and average body mass index (BMI) of 25.9 at baseline. Most participants were White (86.7%), with 7% being Black and 4.1% Hispanic. Cardiovascular disease was a composite outcome that included hospitalized myocardial infarction, definite silent myocardial infarction, coronary death, stroke, congestive heart failure, angina, peripheral vascular disease, carotid artery disease, and coronary revascularization.
The researchers used a four-item Likert scale (0-3) to assess the severity of 15 symptoms experienced within the past 4 weeks at baseline: “night sweats, hot flashes, waking up several times at night, joint pain or stiffness, headaches or migraines, vaginal or genital dryness, heart racing or skipping beats, breast tenderness, dizziness, tremors (shakes), feeling tired, forgetfulness, mood swings, [feeling] restless or fidgety, and difficulty concentrating.”
The associations were adjusted for the following covariates: race/ethnicity, blood pressure, education, smoking status, bilateral oophorectomy, menopausal hormone therapy use (never/past/current), sleep duration, statin use, history of high cholesterol, aspirin use, use of antihypertensives, treated diabetes, and family history of heart attack. Continuous variables included age, age at menopause, BMI, blood pressure, and physical activity levels. Because of the high number of multiple comparisons, the researchers also used a Bonferroni correction to reduce the risk of spurious statistical significance.
The researchers found some clustering of symptoms. Among women who had at least two moderate or severe menopausal symptoms, more than half frequently woke up at night, had joint pain, or felt tired, the researchers reported. Those symptoms were also the most commonly reported ones overall. Younger women, between ages 50 and 59, were more likely than older women (60-79 years old) to experience vasomotor symptoms and all cognitive affective symptoms except forgetfulness.
The researchers identified 10 symptoms whose severity was significantly associated with cardiovascular disease. Compared to having no symptoms at all, the following moderate or severe symptoms were associated with an increased risk of a cardiovascular event after adjustment for covariates and corrected for multiple comparisons: night sweats – a 19% increased risk (P = .03), waking up several times at night – 11% increased risk (P = .05), joint pain or stiffness – 27% increased risk (P < .001), heart racing or skipping beats – 55% increased risk (P < .001), dizziness – 34% increased risk (P < .001), feeling tired – 35% increased risk (P < .001), forgetfulness – 25% increased risk (P < .001), mood swings – 21% increased risk (P = .02), feeling restless or fidgety – 29% increased risk (P < .001), and difficulty concentrating – 31% increased risk (P < .001)
In addition, all-cause mortality was associated with these symptoms when they were moderate or severe: heart racing or skipping beats (32% increased risk of all-cause mortality; hazard ratio, 1.32; P =.006), dizziness (HR, 1.58; P < .001), tremors (HR, 1.44; P < .001), feeling tired (HR, 1.26; P < .001), forgetfulness (HR, 1.29; P = .01), mood swings (HR, 1.35; P = .02), feeling restless or fidgety (HR, 1.35; P < .001), and difficulty concentrating (HR, 1.47; P < .001).
The symptom with the greatest association with all-cause mortality was dizziness, which was associated with an increased risk of 58% when rated moderate or severe. Any dizziness at all was linked to a 12% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with no dizziness. Machine learning with thedetermined that the symptoms most predictive of cardiovascular disease were dizziness, heart racing, feeling tired, and joint pain. The symptoms most associated with all-cause mortality, based on the machine learning algorithm, were dizziness, tremors, and feeling tired.
Dr. Nudy said that their study did not look at mitigation strategies. “Women should discuss with their physician the best methods for cardiovascular risk reduction,” he said. He also cautioned that severe menopausal symptoms can also indicate other health conditions that may require investigation.
“It is certainly possible some symptoms may represent other medical conditions we were unable to control for and may not be directly related to menopause,” such as autoimmune diseases, endocrine abnormalities, or subclinical cardiovascular disease, he said. Additional limitations of the study included an older cohort and retrospective assessment of menopausal symptoms only at baseline. In addition, ”we did not assess the cardiovascular risk among women whose symptoms persisted versus resolved during the study period,” Dr. Nudy said.
Dr. Nachtigall said a key message is that people who are experiencing these symptoms should try to get treatment for them and attempt to alleviate them, hopefully reducing the risk of heart disease and death.
”Estrogen treatment is one excellent option for some individuals and should be considered in the appropriate person,” Dr. Nachtigall said. “If estrogen treatment is to be considered, it should be given closer to menopause, within the first 10 years after menopause and in younger individuals (under 59) at start.”
Dr. Nachtigall referred to theconcluding that, for healthy women within 10 years of menopause who have bothersome menopause symptoms, “the benefits of hormone therapy outweigh its risks, with fewer cardiovascular events in younger versus older women.”
”Menopause and having menopausal symptoms is an opportunity for clinicians and patients to have a conversation about appropriate individualized management options,” Dr. Nachtigall said.
Women may also be able to mitigate their cardiovascular risk with regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and getting adequate sleep, Dr. Nachtigall said. But these healthy behaviors may not adequately treat moderate or severe menopausal symptoms.
“Some health care providers have said that because menopause happens naturally, individuals should just accept the symptoms and try to wait it out and not get treatment, but this study, as well as others, makes it clear that it actually may be beneficial to treat the symptoms,” Dr. Nachtigall said.
The research used no external funding. Dr. Nudy and Dr. Nachtigall had no disclosures.