Why Heart-Healthy Choices Are Extra Important for Women With Migraines 

A new study found that the headaches were linked to an increased risk of stroke.

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Photo by JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Women who get migraine headaches may also have a higher-than-average risk of stroke, according to a study presented this week at an American Heart Association scientific meeting. The findings are preliminary, and not yet published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. But they aren’t the first to suggest a link between the two conditions, either.

The new study involved 917 women, 224 of whom reported a history of migraines. Over a six-year period, those in the migraine group had an 83 percent higher risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event (such as heart attack or stroke), compared to their migraine-free peers.

Most of that increased risk was due to stroke: Women who got migraines were 2.3 times more likely to have had a stroke during the study than those who didn’t.

Women are up to four times more likely to get migraine headaches than men, and studies suggest that monthly drops in estrogen levels, before a woman gets her period, may be one contributing factor.

Migraines have been tied to cardiovascular problems in previous research, as well. Two studies presented in February, for example, found that women who experience migraines with auras—visual or audible sensations that accompany the headache pain—are at increased risk for strokes due to blood clots. And a report published in May suggested a link between migraines and heart attack, stroke, and heart surgery.

Other research, however, has not been able to establish a clear link. Cecil A. Rambarat, M.D., an internal medicine resident at the University of Florida and co-author of the new study, says that when the same group of women was followed for only four and a half years in a previous study, an association between migraines and stroke risk could not be determined.

The new findings are unique, he says, in that they are the first to compare short- and long-term follow-ups on cardiovascular risk, and discover conflicting results.

“We think that in some of these previous studies, women weren’t followed for a long enough time,” Dr. Rambarat told Real Simple. “Longer-term, we found that migraine was associated with cardiovascular events in these women, and increased risk of stroke as well.”

That’s a potentially valuable finding, he adds, since many women who suffer from migraines are relatively young. “Cardiovascular events generally don’t manifest themselves until an older age, so maybe migraine could be a potential symptom that we can use in younger women to follow them more closely and optimize their risk at a younger age.”

Lowering their risk may eventually mean prescribing aspirin at an earlier age to women with migraines, says Dr. Rambarat, especially if those women also have a history of heart disease.

But he says more research is needed before the findings can be confirmed or clinical recommendations can be changed. Until then, he advises women who suffer from migraines to talk with their doctors—and to focus on healthy lifestyle habits to keep stroke and heart disease at bay.

“As the years go by, your doctor might have a lower threshold to do more testing or monitor you for certain signs and symptoms,” he says. “And because you’re at potentially higher risk for developing cardiovascular events, paying attention to healthy eating and exercise is even more important.”