The Trouble with Migraines

A 2013 study found that women who have migraines with aura are at a heightened risk for heart disease and stroke. These findings have serious implications, since an estimated 27 million women in the U.S. get migraines. Those who experience migraine with aura should take preventive measures to protect their heart health.

What is migraine with aura?

There are many types of migraines. About 20 percent of people who have migraines experience head pain that is preceded by visual disturbances, such as flashing lights, zig-zags and blind spots; sensory disturbances, such as numbness and tingling in the hands and face; or other neurological symptoms. This subtype of migraine is categorized as migraine with aura.

Brian Plato, D.O., neurologist and headache specialist, points out that many neurological symptoms associated with migraine with aura mimic symptoms of a stroke, such as numbness, weakness and difficulty with speech and balance. This makes it important for people who experience migraines to be aware of their condition.

“Aura is not a problem of blood flow to the brain, like with stroke,” Dr. Plato said. “Instead, it is a problem with the electricity of the brain becoming unstable.”

Making the connection

Research shows that migraine with aura is the second leading contributor to risk for heart attacks and stroke, behind high blood pressure. It poses a bigger threat to heart health than diabetes, smoking, obesity and family history. According to Dr. Plato, the importance of this research is its emphasis on prevention.

“If a woman knows that she has a genetic predisposition for a greater risk for cardiovascular disease, then she can be counseled to control other risk factors that can be modified, such as smoking, diet, exercise and blood pressure,” Dr. Plato said.

The research also brings awareness to neurological conditions and the importance of recognizing symptoms of migraines, which affect 18 percent of women.

“Migraines are common; however, nearly half go undiagnosed,” Dr. Plato said. “This is evidence of the importance for women with headache and other neurological symptoms to receive a proper diagnosis.”

Identifying your risk factors is the first step in reducing your risk for heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular events. You can lower your risk by making changes to your lifestyle, including eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, lowering your blood pressure and quitting smoking. If you have been diagnosed with migraine with aura or are experiencing symptoms of this type of migraine, it’s important to speak with your physician to take steps to keep your heart healthy.

“Speak to your physician about your headaches so that a proper diagnosis can be made,” Dr. Plato said. “Beyond that, talk with your physician about healthy lifestyle choices as well as regular monitoring of other factors, including blood pressure and cholesterol.”

Heart disease is the biggest killer of women in the United States, with statistics showing that one in four women dies from heart disease every year. The link between migraine with aura and heart disease should raise cautionary flags among women who have the condition. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop heart disease. Taking preventive measures can help improve your quality of life — and save your life.