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Women and Heart Disease

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The risk of heart disease in women increases with age. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women over age 40, especially after menopause. Every year, more than 400,000 U.S. women die of heart disease. This translates to approximately one death every minute.

Why Does a Woman's Risk of Heart Disease Rise With Age?

Menopause is a normal stage in a woman's life; it comprises any of the changes a woman experiences either before or after she stops menstruating. As menopause nears, the ovaries gradually produce less estrogen (a female hormone), causing changes in the menstrual cycle and other physical changes.

The most common symptoms of menopause are hot flashes, night sweats, emotional changes, and changes in the vagina (such as dryness).

Menopause usually occurs naturally in women between ages 45 and 55. However, loss of estrogen can also occur if the ovaries are removed during surgery (such as during a total hysterectomy), by taking certain medications, or if a woman goes through early menopause.

Why Is Heart Disease Associated With Menopause?

The loss of natural estrogen as women age may contribute to the higher risks of heart disease seen after menopause. Other factors that may play a role in postmenopausal risks of heart disease include:

  • Changes in the walls of the blood vessels, making it more likely for plaque and blood clots to form
  • Changes in the level of fats in the blood (LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, increases and HDL, or "good" cholesterol, decreases.)
  • Increases in fibrinogen levels (a substance in the blood that helps the blood to clot); increased levels of blood fibrinogen are related to heart disease and stroke because the fibinogen makes it more likely for blood clots to form, narrowing the arteries and reducing blood flow to the heart.

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