Women’s Migraines Multiply Heart Risk

Migraine Headaches With Aura Magnifies Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke in Women

Medically Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC on July 30, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

July 30, 2008 -- Women who suffer from migraine headaches with aura may be up to three times more likely to develop heart disease than other women, and part of the reason may be in their genes.

A new study suggests a genetic link between women's heart disease risk, migraine with aura, and a genetic variant carried by about 11% of the population.

Gene + Migraine May Spell Heart Trouble

Migraine symptoms vary and may occur with a warning sign called an aura. The aura usually begins about 30 minutes before the headache starts and consists of visual cues such as seeing spots, wavy lines, or flashing lights. Some people may also have numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation in their hands.

In the study, published in Neurology, researchers examined the relationship between genes, migraine headache, and heart disease in more than 25,000 white women who participated in the Women's Health Study.

The women were tested for a certain gene variant in the MTHFR gene, which in previous studies has been associated with an increased risk of vascular events in patients who experience migraine with aura. They also completed a questionnaire about migraine headaches.

Eighteen percent of the women reported having experienced a migraine headache at least once in their lives. About 13% of the women in the study had a history of migraine headaches within the past year and were labeled the active migraine group. Of active migraine sufferers, 40% had migraines with aura.

Over a 12-year follow-up period, 625 women suffered from a heart-related event, such as heart attack or stroke. The genetic variant by itself did not seem to increase risk. Active migraine with aura doubled the risk. But women who had both the genetic variant and active migraine with aura were three times as likely to experience a heart-related event compared with women who did not have the gene variant or migraines. In this latter group, the majority of the increased risk was related to a fourfold increase in risk of stroke.

"This gene by itself does not appear to increase the risk for overall and for specific cardiovascular disease, but rather this research suggests a possible connection between the gene variant and migraine with aura," researcher Tobias Kurth, MD, ScD, with Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, says in a news release.

Kurth says the results suggest that women with migraines accompanied by aura should be counseled in ways to reduce their heart disease risk.

"Doctors should try to reduce heart disease risk factors and advise young women who experience migraine with aura not to smoke and to consider birth control pill alternatives," Kurth says.

Because this study looked only at women, researchers say more study is needed to determine if the migraine with aura and the genetic variant carry the same heart disease risk in men.

"While it is too early to start testing young women with migraine with aura for this gene variant, more focused research will help us to understand these complex links and will help us to potentially develop preventative strategies," Kurth says.

Show Sources


Schurks, M. Neurology, July 30, 2008; vol 70: pp. 505-513.

News release, American Academy of Neurology.

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