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Menopause doesn’t cause a spike in heart disease incidence

After menopause, women are expected to experience a sharply increased risk of heart disease. The traditional thinking has been that hormones protect women from heart disease until menopause. But a new study turns that theory on its head.

A study published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal suggests instead that heart disease death rates in women progress in an orderly rate as women age and are unlikely to be greatly influenced by hormones.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine looked at death statistics from people in England, Wales and the United States born from 1916 to 1945. They found that heart disease deaths in women reflected a steady, upward curve linked to age. The number of women who die each year from heart disease increased at roughly 8% a year, said the lead author of the study, Dhananjay Vaidya, an assistant professor of medicine.

“Our data show there is no big shift toward higher fatal heart attack rates after menopause,” Vaidya said in a news release. “What we believe is going on is that the cells of the heart and arteries are aging like every other tissue in the body, and that is why we see more and more heart attacks every year as women age. Aging itself is an adequate explanation and the arrival of menopause with its altered hormonal impact does not seem to play a role.”

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That means that lifestyle factors are important to preventing heart disease in women of any age, he said.

As for men, the study showed a different pattern of heart-disease deaths, too. The mortality curve for men under the age of 45 increased by 30% per year but slowed down to about a 5% increase per year after age 45.

Instead of assuming hormones protect younger women from heart disease, he said, research should explore why younger men suffer greater rates of heart disease.

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