February 24th, 2011
04:00 PM ET
Most women who are going through menopause can vent about the perils of hot flashes. They happen alongside a reduction in the hormone estrogen, and relate to instability in the skin's blood vessels, but the precise cause is still mysterious. As many as 50% to 80% of women experience hot flashes.
Annoying and troublesome as hot flashes may be, new research suggests that they don't raise heart risks, and may actually be associated with some protection from stroke and cardiovascular events. The study will be published in the journal Menopause.
The results of the new study are observational, meaning they do not prove that hot flashes cause or prevent any negative health outcomes. And they do not suggest that other risk factors aren't important, said Dr. Emily Szmuilowicz, endocrinologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Age, dietary habits, physical activity, smoking and family history are all more important drivers in cardiovascular health than hot flashes, Szmuilowicz said.
The researchers looked at medical information from 60,000 women participating in the Women's Health Initiative Observational Study, and tracked them for 10 years. Women who experienced hot flashes at the outset of menopause, the most common time for these symptoms to occur, had a 17% lower risk of stroke, 11% lower likelihood of cardiovascular disease and 8% lower risk of death than women who did not have hot flashes or began having them later in menopause, Szmuilowicz said.
"The mechanisms underlying those associations are not known at the current time, and we're going to need future studies to look into what might be the underlying mechanisms," she said.
Her speculation is that the blood vessels' response hormonal fluctuations in hot flashes indicates underlying good vascular function. There is no information from the study to specifically support this, however.
Dr. Rita Redberg, cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, said it's unlikely that hot flashes themselves are protective; her theory is that women are more likely to exercise or go to their doctors more regularly because of hot flashes, and those practices can decrease cardiovascular events.
Redberg found the study interesting, but since more research is necessary to flesh out the "why" questions, at best it can help ease concerns women may have had about hot flashes.
"If women had previously been worried that hot flashes meant that they were at increased risk, it would be reassuring to them," she said.
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