Sept. 21, 2011 -- Several recent studies have linked hot flashes to an increased risk for heart disease, and now new research suggests a link between these menopause symptoms and increased cholesterol.
The study is being presented in Washington D.C. this week at the 22nd annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society.
Researchers followed more than 3,000 women in their 40s and early 50s for seven years as they transitioned through menopause.
After taking into account other heart disease risk factors they found hot flashes and, to a lesser extent, night sweats to be predictive of higher cholesterol. The more hot flashes the women had, the higher their LDL "bad" and HDL "good" cholesterol.
Since raised LDL is a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke while high HDL is associated with lower risk for those events, the meaning of the findings is somewhat murky, the researchers say.
"I think hot flashes and night sweats tell us something about women's cardiovascular risk and health, but it is also likely that this message is quite complex," study researcher Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh tells WebMD.
Hot Flashes and Cholesterol
The analysis included 3,201 women between the ages of 42 and 52 when enrolled in the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation (SWAN).
At study entry and each year afterward, fat levels in the blood were assessed, including LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and the apolipoproteins ApoE and ApoA.
Perimenopausal and postmenopausal women who had hot flashes six or more days during a two-week period were considered to have a high frequency of hot flashes.
These women had significantly higher LDL, HDL, triglycerides, ApoE, and ApoA levels than women who had no hot flashes. That held true even after the researchers took into account other risk factors for elevated cholesterol, including age and body weight.
Impact on Heart Disease?
Columbia University professor of medicine Lori Mosca, MD, PhD, tells WebMD that it is not clear if hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms have any direct impact on heart attack and stroke risk.
Mosca is the director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a past president of the American Society for Preventive Cardiology.
Since hot flashes appeared to be associated with an increase in both LDL and HDL cholesterol in the study, Mosca agrees that the take-home message is not clear.
"If hot flashes really are associated with higher levels of both good and bad cholesterol, I have no idea what that means," she says.
One message that is clear, she says, is that menopause is associated with substantial alterations in heart disease risk.
"This is an important time to see your doctor and have your cardiovascular risk assessed," she says.