Hot flashes are the most commonly recognized menopausal symptom; one that has been made light of for generations by both men and women. However, as menopause research finally gets its just deserves, it’s becoming more and more clear that the condition is far from a laughing matter.
Experienced by up to 75% of women, hot flashes can be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but they are generally considered to be a harmless nuisance. But recent research has flipped that notion on its head, having found a link between hot flashes and two serious health conditions. Unpublished studies presented at The Menopause Society’s annual meeting found intense hot flashes are associated with an increase in C-reactive protein, a marker of future heart disease, and to a blood biomarker that might predict a later diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers pointed out that hot flashes weren’t a cause of either disease, but merely an indicator of future health issues.
We’ll break down the fundamentals of this concerning new development, as well as how you can take preventive measures to help safeguard against these diseases.
What are hot flashes?
Hot flashes are sudden feelings of intense heat that can spread over the face, neck, and chest. They can be accompanied by sweating, flushing of the face, and a rapid heartbeat, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Frustratingly unpredictable, hot flashes can be mild and infrequent, or they can be severe and disruptive to daily life, occurring multiple times a day.
When estrogen levels drop during menopause, the body's thermostat is disrupted, leading to unexpected heat waves. Stress, obesity, smoking, caffeine and alcohol can intensify them as well.
Link between hot flashes and heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women and after 30, a woman's risk of dying from heart disease is at least 7 times greater than of her dying from breast cancer. In fact, the American Heart Association notes that an overall increase in heart attacks among women is seen about 10 years after menopause. As estrogen drops, arteries become more susceptible to a narrowing or blockage that affects blood supply to the heart which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
A growing body of research suggests that hot flashes may be a risk factor for heart disease, although until now, prior studies relied on self-reporting. To remove room for error, the MSHeart study presented at the conference reviewed inflammatory markers for heart disease by utilizing physiological evaluation of hot flashes. It ultimately confirmed the link between severity of hot flashes and increased cardiovascular disease risk, even after accounting for factors such as age, race, education, estradiol, and body mass index.
Previous research conducted by the same researchers found women who said they had frequent or persistent hot flashes during early menopause had a 50% to 80% increased risk of heart problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, as well as a greater risk of atherosclerosis - fat buildup in the arteries that can block blood flow.
Link between hot flashes and Alzheimer's disease
The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive cognitive decline and affects an estimated 6.2 million Americans. The risk of Alzheimer's disease increases with age, and women are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than men; almost two-thirds of those with the disease in the U.S. are women. Hot flashes are also more common in women, so it is important to understand the possible link between these two conditions.
Much like heart disease, several studies have identified a link between hot flashes and brain function such as poor memory and alterations in brain structure, function and connectivity. This latest research unearthed a tie between night sweats - hot flashes that occur while asleep - and increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Researchers examined adverse blood biomarkers associated with the disease, discovering that those who experienced more night sweats showed higher possibility of developing Alzheimer’s in the future.
What can you do if you experience hot flashes?
Dr. Rebecca Thurston, lead author of both studies, suggests women experiencing hot flashes treat this as a wake-up call to proactively care for their health. In addition to bioidentical hormone replacement therapy with estradiol, there are a number of lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease and Alzheimer's disease such as:
If your hot flashes are severe or disruptive, talk to your doctor. There are a number of treatments available, including hormone replacement therapy and other medications.
Information is power
Hot flashes are a common symptom of menopause, but they may also be a sign of underlying health problems. If you are concerned about the link between hot flashes and heart disease and Alzheimer's disease, talk to your doctor. They can help you to assess your risk and develop a plan to reduce your risk of these diseases.
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