By: Karen Yontz Center Staff
One of the universal truths about women and heart disease is that your risk for heart disease goes up once you reach menopause. And while we might know that, we might not understand why that is. To put it simply, during menopause, estrogen levels drop significantly, and this causes a flurry of physical responses.
Estrogen levels have a direct effect on the big 3 factors for heart disease: blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin. When estrogen levels fall, blood vessels and heart muscle can become less elastic and stiffer. This tends to lead to an increase in blood pressure which, if left unchecked, can result in hypertension. Lack of estrogen can also wreak havoc on your cholesterol levels, causing your HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels to go down and your LDL (“bad” cholesterol) levels to rise. Some women also can become resistant to insulin during menopause. This leaves their bodies unable to effectively convert blood sugar and starch to cellular energy and causes them to become diabetic.
In addition to the changes in the blood and blood vessels, menopausal hormone changes can also be the culprit behind two other issues: atrial fibrillation (AFib) and weight gain. With AFib, the fluctuation of hormones you experience during menopause can cause your heart to speed up and cause a faster heart rate or other abnormal heart rhythms. And you can thank that estrogen drop for the fact that your metabolism may slow down which can cause you to gain weight. That weight gain will also be more likely to occur around your stomach region thanks to the fact that estrogen regulates where you normally store excess fat and having less means it's no longer pointing it in the right direction.
All of this makes it sound like menopause—in addition to all the unpleasant symptoms it may bring—is going to be a huge pain and that there’s nothing you can do about it. Fear not, dear reader. You can control some of your menopause destiny—at least in terms of your heart. If you aren’t someone who already lives a heart-healthy lifestyle, the years BEFORE menopause hits are the time to start. Things like eating a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, getting enough exercise, and learning what your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers are is a great place to start. But if you are currently in the throws of hot flashes and rage bursts, you can start right now too. Make sure you make time for exercise and healthy foods each day, monitor your weight, and whatever you do, don’t smoke (and if you do, quit).