If You Get Migraines, Your Risk of This Heart Condition Doubles

These headaches can affect your overall health, studies show.

If you suffer from migraines, you know just how debilitating they can be. Now studies are revealing surprising new links between these severe headaches and other health conditions. In particular, one study suggests that people who experience migraines are more likely to develop a serious—and potentially life threatening—heart condition. Read on to find out how migraines could be putting your heart at increased risk, and what you can do about it.

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If you get migraines, your heart attack risk may double, a new study says.

Young black woman having migraine
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Studies have already established that people who experience migraines—especially migraines with aura (MA)—are at an increased risk for stroke. Building on this research, a 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) sought to better understand the full range of heart conditions that might be associated with migraines.

Using data from 115,541 women between the ages of 25 and 42 who were free of angina and cardiovascular disease (CVD) at baseline, the team determined that migraines were associated with an increased risk for major CVD, and more specifically, heart attack. Corroborating research estimates that recurring migraines may even double the risk.

The BMJ study authors noted that besides making a heart attack more likely, migraines also make "cardiovascular mortality" more likely—in other words, death from a cardiac episode.

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Women aren't the only ones at heightened risk.

Shutterstock/Africa Studio

The BMJ study (and several others) included only female subjects, probably because women are three times more likely to experience migraines compared with men. However, experts say men and women may be at equally heightened risk of a cardiovascular event if they experience repeated migraines with aura. "Although many prior studies have demonstrated increased risks in women with migraine with aura, an emerging body of evidence is showing similar risks in men," says a 2008 study published in the medical journal Current Atherosclerosis Reports.

However, one possible compounding risk factor affects women only: taking oral contraceptives. For this reason, women who have repeatedly experienced migraines with aura may wish to speak with their doctor about alternative forms of birth control, the study suggests.

Researchers are working to understand what's behind this link.

doctor is using a stethoscope listen to the heartbeat of the elderly patient.

Experts from the American Migraine Foundation (AMF) say there is "strong evidence that migraine increases the risk of heart disease, such as myocardial infarction (heart attacks) and angina." (Angina is chest pain that's caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.) However, they are still working to understand the exact relationship between migraine and coronary conditions.

"The mechanisms are unknown, but likely involve inflammation, coagulation, and dysfunction of endothelial lining of the arteries," says the health organization.

A 2018 study published in the journal Cephalalgia found that women who suffer from migraine headaches have a higher risk of developing hypertension, or high blood pressure, than those who do not. Since high blood pressure is a known risk factor for heart attack, this may further contribute to the heightened risk.

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Doing this can help lower your heart attack risk.

Older couple exercising lifting weights

Experts do not yet know whether treating or preventing migraines may lower your chances of developing cardiovascular disease or having a heart attack. "Ultimately, it will be important to determine whether MA is a modifiable risk factor for CVD and if preventive medications for migraine or anti-platelet therapy might reduce the risk of CVD in patients with MA," says a 2009 study published in the journal Neurology.

Until we know more, experts recommend that people who experience migraines—especially those who see an aura—focus on factors they do have control over, and which have been proven to help with heart health. These include refraining from tobacco use, maintaining a healthy diet, and getting regular exercise. It's also important to manage your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and stress levels.

If you experience repeated migraines—especially migraines with aura—speak with your neurologist or other healthcare professional about the impact this could have on your overall health.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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