The World Health Organization classifies migraine as one of the top 20 most disabling illnesses on the planet. This illness of the brain is now linked to diseases of the heart.
One-fifth of the population experiences migraine, and it affects women three to four times more often than men: a crushing headache, often with sinking nausea, a crippling sensitivity to light that makes a sunny window debilitating. Streaks of light, called phosphenes, may cross the visual field. Language may become indecipherable.(1)
Thirty percent of women will experience a migraine in their lifetimes. Three percent of the population have chronic migraine — headaches at least 15 days a month.
A recent large study of female nurses aged 25 to 42 has found an association between migraine and cardiovascular disease. The study followed 115,541 predominately white women for 20 years. All were free of angina and cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study.(1)
Every two years between 1989 and 2011, the women were asked to record any cardiac events in a questionnaire. Self-reported cardiac events were confirmed by a physician. Primary outcomes were cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke, or fatal stroke, fatal heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease.(1)
Of the 115,541 women studied, 17,531 or 15.2 percent had a medical diagnosis of migraine at the beginning of the study. An additional 6389 were later classified as suffering from migraine.
Over the course of 20 years, researchers discovered an increased risk for major cardiovascular disease in women with migraine, independent of age after adjusting for confounding variables.
Major cardiovascular disease events were experienced by 1329 women and 223 women died from cardiovascular disease. Migraine was associated with a higher risk for major cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke and coronary revascularization procedures such as heart bypass surgery.
Rebecca Burch and Melissa Rayhill, doctors specializing in headache medicine, agree that "it's time to add migraine to the list of early life medical conditions that are markers for later life cardiovascular risk.”(4)
The mechanism by which migraine increases cardiac risk is not currently understood. Neither is it understood whether preventing migraines reduces cardiac risk.
The study adjusted for age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a family history of heart attack, body mass index, and whether or not the participant smoked. Even use of oral contraceptives or hormones, aspirin, acetaminophen, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs were evaluated.(1)
Reviewed June 15, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) Migraine and risk of cardiovascular disease in women: prospective cohort study. BMJ.com Retrieved June 14, 2016.
2) What Forms Can Migraine Aura Take? AmericanMigrainefoundation.org. Retrieved June 14, 2016.
3) Types of Headache/Migraine. AmericanMigrainefoundation.org. Retrieved June 14, 2016.
4) Women with migraines have higher risk of cardiovascular disease, mortality. ScienceDaily.com. Retrieved June 14, 2016.