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Migraine Aura Linked to Heart Disease

Women who suffer from migraines with aura have a higher risk of developing serious heart problems than women who do not experience these severe headaches. According to a study published in the July 19 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who experienced these premigraine symptoms were more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, angina, or require medical procedures to unblock their arteries.

Migraines have a well-established link with a woman's risk of stroke. It was this connection that led researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health to wonder if migraines were also associated with other heart conditions. Using data from the Women's Health Initiative, they examined the 10-year medical histories of nearly 28,000 women, about 20% of whom experienced migraines, and found that women with any history of migraines were at an increased risk for major heart problems. However, the presence of aura symptoms—warning signs felt before onset of a migraine—seemed to be a key factor in linking migraines to an increased risk of heart disease.

Auras are usually temporary visual disturbances involving flashes of light, slowly spreading dots, or zig-zagging lines. They can also involve tingling or numbness on one side of the body, hearing voices, or feeling anxious or nauseous.

Compared to women who did not have migraines, those who experienced an aura before their migraine were more than twice as likely to die from major heart problems or suffer a heart attack, 80% were more likely to have an ischemic stroke, and 70% were more likely to need bypass surgery or balloon angioplasty to unclog their arteries. These differences remained even after controlling for traditional heart disease risk factors, such as smoking and high blood pressure.

Women who did not experience an aura (about 60% of migraine sufferers) were not at increased risk for any of these heart problems.

Explaining why migraine auras are associated with heart troubles has proved to be a headache in itself. Migraines have been linked to increased levels of homocysteine and blood-clotting proteins, which in turn are linked to an increased risk of heart disease. However, scientists still don't know what causes an aura, so they're not sure why these particular symptoms seem to be connected to heart and blood vessel problems.

Source: JAMA 2006;296:283-291. Reprinted from healthywomen.org

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