Connections between our Reproductive Health and Hearts
It is truly astonishing what the female body can accomplish – starting with the fact that you can grow a new life inside of you. And whilst we praise the incredible capacity of the female reproductive system, we are now also starting to pay closer attention to the links between female reproductive health and our hearts.
Recent studies have shown that during multiple stages in a woman’s life – and her reproductive journey – there are different affects on the heart. Firstly, girls who start their periods before they turn 12 are found to be 10% more likely to develop heart disease than those who are 13 or older. Whilst we know that early onset of periods in girls has been linked to childhood obesity, there is no straightforward link between the two with more research required to understand the connection.
When it comes to the beautiful process of pregnancy, women must be aware that it is often a stress test for the heart.
During pregnancy, a woman’s heart rate is estimated to increase by at least 25% which in turn can place women at a higher risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms). Other pregnancy related conditions that have been linked to heart disease include pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure) and peripartum-cardiomyopathy which is a type of heart failure brought on by the heart growing and thickening to compensate for pregnancy.
Miscarriage was also found to show a connection to risk of heart disease. Each miscarriage was found to increase a woman’s risk of heart disease by 6% while giving birth to a stillborn child was associated with a 22% higher risk of heart disease and a 44% higher risk of stroke.
Other potential reproductive health determinants linked to heart disease include:
- Having a hysterectomy
- Having your ovaries removed
- Taking the oral contraceptive pill
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (also known as PCOS) is hormonal condition affecting up to 1 in 5 women who are within reproductive age. PCOS is linked to many risk factors of heart disease, such as Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and sleep apnea. The good news is that the lifestyle management of PCOS encompasses many of the lifestyle interventions recommended for heart disease (to find out more visit Jean Hailes).
At the other end of the cycle, those who went through menopause before the age of 47 were found to have a 33% higher risk of developing heart disease and a 42% greater risk of stroke.
The connection between heart disease and menopause is a little clearer. Before menopause, women’s oestrogen levels are higher with oestrogen known to help with artery and vessel structure as well as heart function. After menopause, women’s oestrogen levels decline, which can increase the risk of heart disease. The good news is hormone replacement therapy helps replace lost oestrogen and is also considered beneficial to cholesterol reduction, another known risk factor for heart disease.
Ultimately, it appears that no matter where we are along the reproductive cycle, we are given clues to our future heart health. The challenge is for health care professionals to start connecting the dots between our reproductive experiences and the impact this could have on our hearts. The more research and understanding of these important connections could help us save women’s lives.
If you think you might be at risk, make sure to book in to see your GP for a heart health check (click here for your downloadable checklist).