Cardiovascular Disorders & Women: PART 2
As we discovered in part 1 of this series on migraine and cardiovascular disorders, research indicates that migraine poses cardiovascular risks. This is especially for women, and the risk increases with age as women approach menopause and estrogen levels decline. Although heart disease is often thought to be more of a problem for men, the reality is that it’s the most common cause of death for both men and women.
Heart attack symptoms for women are generally different than for men. While the most common symptom is chest pain, pressure, or discomfort, it’s not always severe for women—who sometimes feel no pain. For women, symptoms include:
- Neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back, and/or abdominal discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in one or both arms
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
For some people with migraine, the above symptoms might seem oddly similar to some migraine symptoms, complicating diagnosis, and making it challenging to determine exactly what is going on. These symptoms might sometimes be vague, and women often experience them while resting, or even while they are asleep. Part of the challenge may be due to the fact that women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries but also in the smaller ones that supply blood to the heart. In fact, women are more likely than men to have a heart attack with no severe blockage in an artery.
Another reason women tend to be underdiagnosed for cardiovascular disease is that doctors are less likely to refer women for heart disease diagnostic tests. Women are more likely to experience delays in getting an initial EKG, and they are less likely to see a cardiologist while hospitalized. Younger women in particular are more likely to be misdiagnosed and sent home from the emergency department after a cardiac event, often being told that they are just experiencing stress or anxiety.
Ironically, in many cases the risk factors for heart disease affect women more than men. These include migraine, diabetes, stress, depression, menopause, pregnancy complications, and inflammatory diseases, to name a few.
So, what does all this mean? Heart disease is epidemic and, like migraine, poses specific problems for women. Having migraine does not mean you have or will have cardiovascular disease. However, it does mean that you may be at risk and should be aware of any new or unusual symptoms. If you have any of the conditions or symptoms mentioned in these blogs about migraine and cardiovascular disorders, please contact your doctor to be evaluated. Make sure you let them know that you have been diagnosed with migraine, and mention any heart disease risk factors such as family history of heart disease, using oral contraceptives, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or previous cardiovascular symptoms.
As always, if you have migraine and heart disease or other cardiovascular disorders, leading a healthy lifestyle is essential. Migraine and heart-healthy strategies include:
- Quit smoking: If you smoke, quit asap. Also avoid secondhand smoke, which can damage blood vessels.
- Have a healthy diet: Eat a diet filled with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat or fat-free dairy items. Avoid trans fats and added sugars. Limit salt.
- Improve sleep and manage stress: Poor sleep can aggravate both migraine and cardiovascular symptoms, so try to keep a regular sleep schedule, and talk to your doctor if you suspect a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea.
- Regular exercise: Even if cardio exercise triggers migraine attacks for you, it is still important to find gentle ways of doing exercise such as walking, stretching, using an under-the-desk elliptical glider, or gentle yoga.
- Manage stress: Stress can increase the risk of heart disease, so it is important to find ways to reduce it by intentionally evaluating your time commitments and finding opportunities to relax and be kind to yourself. Try practicing mindfulness or meditation, and consider joining online migraine support groups to connect with others who understand.
- Limit alcohol: Drink in moderation—up to one drink a day for women and two for men.
With a little planning and vigilance, you have the power to prevent or mitigate both heart disease and migraine. You can do it!
Let Us Know: Do you have migraine and heart disease? If you are a woman, do you feel your health complaints are disregarded or downplayed? What strategies do you use to advocate for yourself?