Reaching Menopause May Mean Statins Are No Longer Enough

2 min read

April 4, 2024 – Older women who have reached menopause may get plaque buildup in their arteries faster than men of the same age. 

That's the finding of a new study that could affect how women manage cholesterol and how they're screened for heart problems once they reach menopause. Ultimately, the study suggests that taking a common type of cholesterol medication called a statin may not be enough to protect post-menopausal women from serious heart problems.

The faster rate of plaque buildup is likely related to the post-menopausal decline of the hormone estrogen, the study’s lead researcher said.

“After menopause, women have much less estrogen and shift to a more testosterone-heavy profile,” researcher Ella Ishaaya, MD, an internal medicine doctor at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, CA, said in a statement. “This affects the way your body stores fat, where it stores fat, and the way it processes fat; it even affects the way your blood clots. And all of those [changes] increase your risk for developing heart disease.”

Specifically, the study showed that post-menopausal women who used statins saw their scores on a test that gauges heart disease risk increase at twice the rate of men of the same age who were also taking statins. The test, known as a coronary artery calcium (CAC) screening, detects the buildup of plaque, which is a combination of fat, calcium, and other substances. The men and women did not have heart disease at the start of the study, and all took the CAC test twice, with a 1-year span between the tests.

In a summary of the research for those attending a conference of the American College of Cardiology in Atlanta, the researchers wrote that they sought to examine the topic because past research has shown that men typically have steeper increases to their CAC scores over time, but it was unclear specifically how scores differed when women’s bodies had changed after the reproductive phase of life.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the U.S., and in 2021 was linked to 1 in every 5 deaths among women. 

“Women are underscreened and undertreated, especially post-menopausal women, who have a barrage of new risk factors that many are not aware of. This study raises awareness of what those risk factors are and opens the door to indicating the importance of increased screening for coronary artery calcium (CAC),” Ishaaya said.

The findings are being presented at the cardiology conference this weekend in Atlanta.