Men's Migraines Up Heart Attack Risk

Study Shows Middle-Aged Men Who Have Migraines More Likely to Have Heart Attacks

Nov. 15, 2006 -- Middle-aged men who suffer from migraine headaches are 42% more likely to have a heart attack when compared with nonsufferers, according to a new analysis of the 20,084 men participating in the Physicians' Health Study.

"Until we understand more about the association between migraines and heart disease, patients with migraines should think about how to mitigate other known heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, smoking, and obesity," says researcher Tobias Kurth, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The study comes on the heels of other research by Kurth and colleagues that showed that older women with migraines -- especially those accompanied by neurologic visual disturbances known as aura -- had a higher risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.

In the current study, the researchers did not have information on whether the men had auras. But Kurth says he believes the "findings in women are probably generalizable to men."

An aura occurs before the onset of a migraine. Aura symptoms can include, but are not limited to, light flashes, blind spots, blurred vision, and the formation of dazzling zigzag lines during the migraine. Aura can also include changes in sensation and smell.

About one-third to one-fifth of sufferers of either sex typically have aura symptoms.

As in the women's study, it is not clear if the heart risks apply to younger people, as they were not studied.

Blood Vessels Blamed

The study, presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2006, included 20,084 men participating in the Physicians' Health Study.

The men were aged 56 on average when they joined the study, and none had a history of cardiovascular disease or angina at the start of the study. They were followed for an average of 15.7 years.

Of the total, 1,449 (7.2%) men were classified as being migraine sufferers, having reported they suffered them during the first five years of the study.

At the start of the study, men with migraines were slightly more likely to have high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels, compared with men who didn't have migraines. But even after these factors were taken into account, there was still a significant association between migraines and heart disease.

Though no one knows how migraines may lead to heart disease, former American Heart Association President Robert O. Bonow, MD, believes it may come down to the blood vessels.

"In migraine sufferers, the blood vessels are very reactive and may constrict in the head," he tells WebMD. "If this is a systemic effect, it could affect the heart." Constricted blood vessels feeding the heart can reduce its supply of oxygen-rich blood, causing a heart attack.

Bonow, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, was not involved with the research.

Show Sources

SOURCES: American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2006, Chicago, Nov. 12-15, 2006. Tobias Kurth, MD, assistant professor of medicine, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston. Robert O. Bonow, MD, chief of cardiology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago; past president, American Heart Association.

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