As Many as 1 in 4 Women May Experience Irregular Heartbeats After Menopause

New research has found that as many as one in four women may experience irregular heartbeats after menopause, likely associated with insomnia and stressful life events like divorce.

The study, recently published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, analyzed data from 83,736 women between the ages of 50 and 79 who were enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, a long-term national health study that focused on strategies for preventing heart disease, breast and colorectal cancer, and osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. 

What the research shows

What they found was over the course of the study, 23,954 cases of atrial fibrillation were detected, and a woman’s risk went up when she had higher ratings in a ‘Stress Cluster’ which  included stressful life events like insomnia, divorce, or depression or depressive symptoms. The greatest risk was in women who had insomnia and divorce, which researchers found were  “significantly associated” with irregular heartbeats in women who already experienced menopause. 

Irregular heartbeats, which are not life-threatening, are also known as atrial fibrillation or AFib. They present themselves in the form of a quivering or irregular heartbeat that is caused when the upper chambers of the heart, or the atria, begin to beat irregularly. This is because not enough blood is being pumped out of the atria, and blood can begin to pool and then clot, which can lead to stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications, according to the American Heart Association(AHA).

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, and earlier research from the AHA found that women “have a notable increase in the risk for this disease after menopause”. The AHA says that the “distinct patterns of sex hormone changes” and the body’s changing composition likely play a role. 

Stress, or the body’s natural response to something challenging or uncomfortable, is a well-known trigger for AFib. When a negative event or prolonged state of worry occurs, hormonal activation and inflammation can occur which directly impacts the cardiovascular system and heart. This can lead to weight gain and loss of sleep, which are two risk factors for AFib.

What causes irregular heartbeats after menopause?

The study also found that insomnia played a major role in women who had higher rates of irregular heartbeats. They concluded that stressful life events like divorce could lead to restless sleep or a lack of sleep all together, and even the transition of entering menopause could instigate stress. And the link between insomnia and menopause has been well studied. Data shows that insomnia can vary from 16 percent to 42 percent before menopause, 39 percent to 47 percent during perimenopause and from 35 percent to 60 percent post-menopause. 

But the study did have its limitations as researchers relied on self-reported questionnaires and 88 percent of participants were white. The study also noted that high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, thyroid disease, heart failure, and heart attacks were outside contributors that could increase the risk of AFib, which can occur in women as they age. 

How to treat and prevent irregular heartbeats

Treatment for irregular heartbeats can include prescription medications, cardioversion therapy, and surgery. And for those who might be concerned of developing AFib after they’ve gone through menopause, the AHA recommends:

Exercising regularly

Eating a heart-healthy diet low in salt, saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol

Managing high blood pressure

Avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol and caffeine

Not smoking

Controlling cholesterol

Maintaining a healthy weight

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