Heart disease

It is easy to assume that heart disease is something which tends to affect only men but women too can be affected.

Coronary heart disease is one of the main causes of death in the UK and occurs when the arteries become blocked (or ‘furred’) due to high cholesterol levels.

Women are protected against this by the hormone oestrogen which ensures that they have ‘good’cholesterol (high levels of HDL) in their blood and reduces the risk of heart disease.

Oestrogen also reduces the risk of blood clots and improves blood flow to the heart in general.

But oestrogen levels fall during the menopause which means a loss of protection against heart disease. It also means that women have the same level of risk as men.

Causes of heart disease

High cholesterol levels in the blood are the main cause of heart disease. These cause the walls of the arteries to thicken and narrow over time which reduces blood flow to the heart.

If an artery becomes blocked due to a blood clot then this prevents blood from reaching the heart and is known as a ‘heart attack’.

Risk factors for heart disease

Women are at less risk of heart disease but this alters once they reach the menopause. Their reduced levels of oestrogen mean that they no longer receive the same protection against high cholesterol and coronary heart disease.

Statistically, your chances of developing heart disease are about the same as a man’s.

Other risk factors include:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • A diet high in saturated fat
  • Overweight or obese
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Age (the risks increase with age)
  • Lack of exercise/physical activity

There are certain medical conditions which increase the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. These include diabetes, high blood pressure and underactive thyroid. Some forms of medication such as beta blockers or steroids can also affect cholesterol levels.

Reducing the risk of heart disease

There is not a great deal you can do about the menopause but there things you can do to reduce the risk of heart disease.

These include a healthy diet which is low in saturated fat and high in fibre; exercise, stopping smoking if you are smoker and a moderate alcohol intake.

There are drugs known as ‘statins’ which can help to lower cholesterol.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is an effective form of treatment for the symptoms of the menopause but there are several question marks regarding its safety. This is particularly the case in long term users as it has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer, stroke and heart disease.

However these risks appear to be small and many women find that the benefits of HRT outweigh the risks.

Your GP will be able to advise you about HRT and other forms of treatment.

For more information about HRT visit our menopause treatment section.

If you want to know more about lifestyle changes and the menopause then visit our menopause self help section.

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