A marker for heart disease risk considerably worsens as women transition through menopause, according to a new study.

[Representational image] Hormone therapy can stop menopause related depression, according to researchers.Getty Images/ piccerella

The research team from the University of Pittsburgh in the US, used a subset of data from the SWAN (Study of Women's Health Across the Nation) Heart, an ancillary study that enrolled women from Pittsburgh and Chicago between 2001 and 2003 and included two examinations of early markers of cardiovascular health over time.

Ultimately, 339 women were included in this study, 36 per cent black and the rest white, said the study, published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology.

"Midlife is not just a period where women have hot flashes and experience other menopausal symptoms, it's a time when their cardiovascular disease risk is increasing as we see significant changes in multiple clinical measures of their physical health," said study senior author Samar R El Khoudary from the University of Pittsburgh.

The study focused on how arterial stiffness changes as women transition through menopause. Arterial stiffness refers to the elasticity of arteries and is measured by looking at how fast blood flows through arteries.

Stiffer arteries can lead to dysfunction in how well the heart pumps and moves blood, and damage to the heart, kidneys and other organs.

The researchers tracked the women through SWAN for up to 12.5 years, or until they reached menopause, allowing them to confidently anchor the arterial stiffness measure to the menopausal transition.

Arterial stiffness

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On average, as women went through menopause, their arterial stiffness increased by about 0.9 per cent up to one year before their last menstrual period to about 7.5 per cent within one year before and after their last period, a considerable acceleration.

The black women in the study experienced greater increases in arterial stiffness earlier in the transition than white women, more than a year before menopause.

The findings held after adjusting for numerous factors that could affect heart health, including waist circumference, blood pressure, lipids, smoking status, physical activity levels and financial stress.

This study follows several others that link the menopausal transition to the accumulation of heart fat, changes in cholesterol, inflammation and coronary artery calcification, among other heart disease risk factors.

"Our study is not able to tell us why we're seeing these changes during the menopausal transition," El Khoudary said.

"But we speculate that the dramatic hormonal changes accompanying menopause might play a role by increasing inflammation and affecting vascular fat deposition, a hypothesis that we would like to test in future studies," Khoudary added.