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Aging, Not Menopause Explains Fatal Heart Disease in Women


Menopause may be blamed for many things, but increasing the risk of fatal heart disease is not one of them. That’s the finding of researchers at Johns Hopkins, who report that aging, not menopause and its associated hormonal changes, is the reason behind the increasing number of heart related deaths as women grow older.

Heart disease deaths don’t spike after menopause

The good news from the new study is that heart disease death rates in women don’t rise dramatically after menopause, as has long been believed by experts. The not so good news is, heart disease is still the number one killer of women in the United States and its mortality rates progress at a constant pace as women grow older.

According to the study’s leader, Dhananjay Vaidya, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the authors believe “the cells of the heart and arteries are aging like every other tissue in the body, and that is why we see more and more heart attacks every year as women age.” Menopause and hormonal changes, they say “does not seem to play a role.”

The researchers came to this conclusion after they evaluated mortality statistics for individuals born in the United States, Wales, and England between 1916 and 1945 and followed them over time. They discovered that death rates from heart disease among women remained on a steady curve and did not spike after menopause.

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Researchers also made a few other discoveries. One is that the number of women who die each year from heart disease rises about 8 percent annually and stays steady throughout the lifespan. Another finding was that for men younger than 45, the mortality curve rises by 30 percent yearly, but then slows to about 5 percent per year after 45.

Vaidya noted that “Instead of looking at menopause, what we should be looking at is what is happening biologically to men over time.” One possible explanation concerns telomeres, DNA sequences at the end of a chromosome that protect the genes at the end of the chromosome from damage.

Every time cells divide, telomeres are copied and they shrink, and this process exposes the genes to possible damage. Damaged genes do not recover and lead to the deteriorating impact associated with aging. Studies show that telomere lengths are significantly shorter in young adult men as compared with young adult women, and this difference could explain why men have a greater risk of cardiovascular death at younger ages.

This study’s findings contradict the belief that death from heart disease increases after menopause and place the blame on aging alone. Vaidya noted that “special attention should be paid to heart health in women due to their overall lifetime risk, not just after the time of menopause.”

Vaidya D et al. British Medical Journal 2011; 343:d5170

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons