Now, we have at least part of the answer: A new study shows beyond a doubt that menopause, not the natural aging process, is responsible for a sharp increase in cholesterol levels.
This seems to be true of all women, regardless of ethnicity, according to the study, which will be published next week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
“As they approach menopause, many, many women show a very striking increase in cholesterol levels, which in turn increases risk for later heart disease,” says the lead author of the study, Karen A. Matthews, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Over a 10-year period, Matthews and her colleagues followed 1,054 U.S. women as they went through menopause. Each year the researchers tested study participants for cholesterol, blood pressure, and other heart disease risk factors such as blood glucose and insulin.
In nearly every woman, the study found, cholesterol levels jumped around the time of menopause. (Menopause usually occurs around age 50 but can happen naturally as early as 40 and as late as 60.)
In the two-year window surrounding their final menstrual period, the women's average LDL, or bad cholesterol, rose by about 10.5 points, or about 9%. The average total cholesterol level also increased substantially, by about 6.5%.
Other risk factors, such as insulin and systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading), also rose during the study, but they did so at a steady rate, suggesting that the increasesunlike those for cholesterolwere related to aging, not menopause. Of all the risk factors measured in the study, the changes in cholesterol were the most dramatic.
The jumps in cholesterol reported in the study could definitely have an impact on a woman’s health, says Vera Bittner, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who wrote an editorial accompanying Matthews’s study.
“The changes don't look large, but given that the typical woman lives several decades after menopause, any adverse change becomes cumulative over time,” says Dr. Bittner. “If somebody had cholesterol levels at the lower ranges of normal, the small change may not make a difference. But if somebody's risk factors were already borderline in several categories, this increase may tip them over the edge and put them in a risk category where treatment may be beneficial.”
In a first, the study did not find any measurable differences in the impact of menopause on cholesterol across ethnic groups.
Experts have been unsure how ethnicity may affect the link between menopause and cardiovascular risk, because most research to date has been conducted in Caucasian women. Matthews and her colleagues were able to explore the role of ethnicity because their research is part of the larger Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), which includes substantial numbers of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American women.