Women who experience more hot flashes, particularly while sleeping, during the menopause transition are more likely to have brain changes reflecting a higher risk for cerebrovascular disease, such as stroke and other brain blood flow problems, according to a pilot study led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh.
The team state that more than 70 percent of women have hot flashes, a sudden feeling of intense warmth and sweatiness, while transitioning into menopause. While previous studies have shown that hot flashes can be linked to signs of subclinical heart disease, such as changes in the blood vessels, as well as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, the current study examined the possible connection between hot flashes and brain health.
The researchers recruited 20 women in midlife who were not taking hormone therapy and, using a device that measures skin conductance, biologically monitored their hot flashes for 24 hours. They also conducted MRI brain imaging on participants which detected white matter hyperintensities, these are bright spots on the scan that are thought to develop due to disease of the brain’s small blood vessels. Participants also kept electronic hot flash diaries.
In the current study the women reported an average of three hot flashes per day, but the monitoring showed greater frequency, at an average of eight per day as some were likely not self-reported because they occurred during sleep. Women who had more monitor-detected hot flashes, particularly during sleep, also had a greater number of white matter hyperintensities on their brain scans.
The team state that other factors like age and cardiovascular risk factors did not explain this effect, so these findings suggest there is a relationship between menopausal hot flashes and blood vessel changes in the brain. They go on to add that further work is needed to understand whether one causes the other, or if hot flashers are a signal of some other vascular process that impacts brain health.
The researchers surmise that it might be particularly important for women who are experiencing numerous hot flashes to consider modifying cardiovascular risk factors by quitting smoking and treating high blood pressure.