A recently published meta-analysis (a study of studies) has concluded that women who experience menopause before age 45 are at an increased risk of heart disease and early death. Given that this category covers about 10% of all women, the findings raise some cause for concern—more so if they end up being verified.
As mentioned, this study was a meta-analysis, which is one of the ways that individual scientific studies have their results collected and combined into a more definitive statement. Basically, it involves taking the data from multiple studies and combining them into a single massive analysis. The quality and reliability of a meta analysis depends on the studies that it includes, but the results of a meta-analysis are generally more reputable than any single study alone.
In this case, the researchers looked at 32 studies with a combined population of 310,329 women. Outcomes for age of menopause, cardiovascular disease, death from cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality (death from anything) were assessed.
When women with early onset menopause (women age 45 or lower) were compared to women who underwent menopause later in life, those with early onset menopause were found to have:
- A 50% higher risk of coronary heart disease
- A 11% higher risk of fatal coronary heart disease
- A 23% higher risk of stroke
- A 19% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- A 12% higher risk of death from any cause
For clarity, these are all relative risk increases. A woman with early onset menopause is 50% more likely to have coronary heart disease than someone who had menopause later in life. Their absolute chance of coronary heart disease has not actually risen by half.
Why Is This Happening?
The reason why these findings occurred is not entirely clear, though there are some theories. For instance, the decline in estrogen and other hormonal changes from menopause could be affecting the vascular system. It is also possible that the onset of menopause in this context is just a sign of aging, and both early menopause and the increased risk of heart problems are indicators that the body is undergoing age-related changes earlier than others.
Regardless of why, the findings suggest that women who experience menopause before age 45 are at greater risk for coronary disease and all the ensuing problems (chest pain, arterial plaque, stroke, etc.) that entails. While this implies an early death is more likely, that doesn’t need to be the case. Women with early onset menopause should be more aware of their personal heart risk and work with their doctor to understand and respond to their individual circumstances.
Muka, T., et al., “Association of Age at Onset of Menopause and Time Since Onset of Menopause With Cardiovascular Outcomes, Intermediate Vascular Traits, and All-Cause Mortality, A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” JAMA Cardiology, 2016; 10.1001/jamacardio.2016.2415.