Women who live a healthy lifestyle during the transition to menopause may help keep their blood vessels healthy as they age, a new study suggests.
Compared with women who had the least healthy lifestyle, those who led the healthiest lifestyle had less thickening and buildup of fatty plaque in their arteries, researchers found.
“Midlife is a crucial window for women to take their cardiovascular wellness to heart and set a course for healthy aging,” said study author Dr. Ana Baylin. She’s an associate professor of nutritional health sciences and epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
The changes that often occur with menopause, especially higher cholesterol levels and blood pressure, can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and reduced mental ability later in life, Baylin said.
“The good news is that middle-aged women can take their well-being into their own hands and make healthy lifestyle changes, such as avoiding tobacco smoke, eating a healthier diet and getting more physical activity to reduce their cardiovascular risk,” Baylin said in an American Heart Association news release.
For the study, Baylin and her colleagues collected data on more than 1,100 women between ages 42 and 52 who took part in a U.S. National Institute of Aging study and followed them for about 15 years.
To rate the women’s lifestyle, the researchers used a special “Healthy Lifestyle Score” developed for the study. Women had an annual medical exam and completed questionnaires about their physical activity, eating habits and tobacco use. The participants also had at least one coronary artery ultrasound, which provided images of the inside of an artery leading to the heart.
Women with the highest scores — the healthiest lifestyles — had less arterial thickening. Of the three score components — healthy diet, not smoking, and getting regular exercise — abstinence from smoking had the strongest association with clearer arteries.
Also, the report found that only about 2 percent of the women stuck to all three parts of the Healthy Lifestyle Score throughout the study.
“The low prevalence of a healthy lifestyle in this group of midlife women highlights the potential for lifestyle interventions aimed at this vulnerable population,” said study co-author Dongqing Wang, also from the University of Michigan.
“Our prospective analysis clearly suggests that women approaching menopause can significantly lower this risk if they adopt healthier behaviors, even if cardiovascular issues have never been on their radar,” he said.
The report was published online Nov. 28 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.