Women with Migraines More Prone to Heart Disease

A woman rubs her head in pain.
(Image credit: Hatchapong Palurtchaivong/Shutterstock)

Women who suffer from migraines may be more likely than other women to develop heart problems, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that women who have migraines were at greater risk of having a heart attack and angina (chest pain), and of needing to undergo heart-related procedures such as coronary artery bypass grafting, compared with women who did not get the severe headaches, according to the findings published online today (May 31) in the journal The BMJ.

Migraines in women were not only linked with an increased risk of developing heart disease, but they were also associated with a greater chance of dying from heart-related problems than they were in women without migraines, the researchers found.

"This study provides really good quality evidence that migraine in women is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Rebecca Burch, an instructor in the department of neurology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, but was not involved in the research. [Ouch: 10 Odd Causes of Headaches]

Migraines have a fairly small effect on cardiovascular risk compared with other known risk factors that have a much larger influence on heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, Burch said.

However, because migraines are relatively common, affecting an estimated 1 in 4 American women, this can add up to a significant risk, she said.

Previous studies have established a connection between women with migraines, particularly headaches preceded by other symptoms — like dizziness or ringing in the ears (such symptoms are referred to as an aura) — and an increased risk of developing both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes. Ischemic strokes are more common and are caused by a blockage of blood flow in the brain; hemorrhagic strokes are caused by a rupture in a blood vessel. [7 Things That May Raise Your Risk of Stroke]

The new study shows that migraines were associated with not only an increased risk for stroke, but also an increased risk for cardiovascular problems in general, Burch told Live Science. Researchers have suspected for a while that such a link existed, but prior evidence has found mixed results, she said.

Cardiac risk

In the new study, researchers looked at data collected from more than 115,000 female nurses, ages 25 to 42, who were enrolled in a large, ongoing study called the Nurses' Health Study II. About 17,500 of these women (15 percent of them) reported having been diagnosed with migraines.

After tracking the health status of the nurses for more than 20 years, the researchers found that women with migraines were about 50 percent more likely to develop major cardiovascular disease than women who never had migraines.

During the follow-up period, 678 women with migraines had heart attacks, 651 had strokes and 203 had chest pain or needed heart-related procedures. In addition, there were 223 deaths from heart-related causes, according to the findings.

Scientists don't yet know exactly why women who have migraines may be more prone to developing heart disease and stroke.

The most likely explanation is that migraines and cardiovascular disease share some common underlying mechanisms, Burch said. In other words, there may be something different about the blood vessels in people with migraines that may cause them to behave differently than people who don't get these throbbing headaches, she explained.

More research is needed to better understand the connection between migraines and cardiovascular disease. [10 Amazing Facts About Your Heart]

In the meantime, women should continue to treat their migraines with existing therapies and be aware of the steps they can take to reduce their overall risk for heart disease and stroke, such as not smoking, reducing high blood pressure and lowering cholesterol, Burch recommended.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.