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Menopause Health Center

Anxiety, Obesity, Smoking May Up Hot Flashes

Studies Show Lifestyle Factors Play a Role in Menopause Symptoms
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May 11, 2005 -- Need another good reason to stop smoking, lose weight, and reduce the stress in your life? If you're a woman approaching menopause, here's a big one.

New research shows that anxiety, obesity, and smoking strongly increase both the number and severity of hot flashes women experience during the transition to menopause.

The two newly published studies are among the first to show that reversible lifestyle factors play a role in one of the most bothersome symptoms associated with what is euphemistically referred to as "the change of life."

Nationally recognized menopause expert Isaac Schiff, MD, says it is not clear if lifestyle factors actually cause hot flashes or just increase a woman's sensitivity to them. Schiff is a professor of gynecology at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Women's Care Division at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"But [the findings] suggest that interventions aimed at reducing these factors could potentially lower the occurrence of hot flashes," he says.

Anxious Women Suffer Most

The studies are published in the May/June issue of the North American Menopause Society journal Menopause.

One involved a six-year follow-up of 436 white and black women who were premenopausal (had regular cycles) and between the ages of 35 and 47 at the start of the study. Tests designed to measure anxiety were conducted at the beginning of the study and six years later.

At the end of the study, about half of the women started having variable cycle lengths or skipped periods. Reports of hot flashes increased as women entered into a transitional period (menstrual irregularities) toward menopause.

Menopause is defined as the permanent ending of menstruation, occurring 12 months after the last period.

Anxiety scores were associated with the occurrence, frequency, and severity of hot flashes. Women with moderate degrees of anxiety reported three times more hot flashes than women with normal levels of anxiety. Women with the highest levels of anxiety reported nearly five times as many hot flashes.

Researcher Ellen W. Freeman, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, says the findings could have implications for the treatment of menopause-related hot flashes, especially among women who worry about taking hormone therapy.

She says more studies are needed for evaluating the usefulness of medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants -- Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft -- in the treatment of menopause symptoms.

"There have been a few studies, but not many," Freeman tells WebMD. "Since anxiety can play a very big role in the experience of hot flashes, it makes sense to look closer at anxiety treatments."

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