Women, if you're bothered by frequent hot flashes, it may be more than a mere annoyance.
New research offers evidence that frequent or persistent hot flashes are linked to higher odds of heart attack and stroke. The finding stems from a 20-year study of about 3,300 women during menopause.
Of those women, 231 had a heart attack, stroke or heart failure.
Women who had frequent hot flashes had twice the risk of heart trouble during the study, researchers found. And those who had persistent hot flashes had an 80% higher risk over 20 years.
"The [heart events] were not explained by things like blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, exercise or smoking, which are our usual suspects," said lead author Rebecca Thurston, director of the Women's Biobehavioral Health Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Much more remains to be learned, Thurston said.
Next up: Understanding the underlying mechanisms that link hot flashes to heart disease risk. Researchers also want to find out whether treating hot flashes has any impact on women's heart health as they age.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 75% of women report experiencing hot flashes (intense warmth, bouts of sweating) as their monthly periods become infrequent and finally stop, according to the North American Menopause Society.
"We don't know the exact cause of hot flashes, but it relates to a part of the brain that regulates temperature," said Dr. Stephanie Faubion, the society's medical director. "The range of temperatures where women feel comfortable is narrowed compared to what it was before hot flashes started. Think of it like a broken thermostat."
Not all women who experience hot flashes will develop heart disease, nor are hot flashes a cause of heart disease, experts said.
But menopausal women are still at a greater risk of other preventable chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.
"Women should understand their individual risks by knowing their numbers [blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose] and by taking action to maintain health," Faubion said.
That includes getting appropriate screenings for breast, colon and cervical cancer and a bone density scan. Faubion also recommends regular exercise, a healthy diet, maintaining an appropriate weight, getting enough sleep, not smoking and paying attention to good mental health.
Thurston offered a similar prescription. "It is all too common that women put their health on the back burner in favor of the needs of others, such as their children or family members," she said. "Now is the time to prioritize one's own health."
The study was to be presented Tuesday at a meeting of the North American Menopause Society, in Chicago. Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
For a guide to taming hot flashes, visit the U.S. National Institutes of Health.