High blood pressure, diabetes, tobacco use and obesity are some of the more well-established risk factors for heart disease. But a new study published in the journal Circulation finds that for women, the risk of developing the condition – as well as stroke and high blood pressure – may be influenced by the age at which menstruation begins.

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Women who had their first menstrual cycle at age 10 or younger or at age 17 or older may be at increased risk of heart disease, stroke and hypertension.

The research team – led by Dr. Dexter Canoy of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford in the UK – assessed health data from 1.3 million women in the UK aged 50-64. The researchers monitored the women for more than 10 years.

Women who had their first menstrual cycle aged 10 or younger or aged 17 or older were found to be much more likely to develop heart disease, stroke and hypertension-related complications, compared with women who had their first menstrual period aged 13.

In detail, these women were at 27% higher risk of hospitalization or death from heart disease, 16% higher risk of hospitalization or death from stroke and 20% higher risk of hospitalization from high blood pressure or death as a result of related complications.

The researchers say their results remained even after accounting for participants’ weight, smoking status and socioeconomic factors.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The condition was responsible for 1 in every 4 female deaths in 2009.

According to Dr. Canoy, fighting childhood obesity – a possible cause of early menstruation – may be one way to reduce heart disease risk among women. He says:

Childhood obesity, widespread in many industrialized countries, is linked particularly to early age at which the first menstrual cycle occurs. Public health strategies to tackle childhood obesity may possibly prevent the lowering of the average age of first menstrual cycle, which may in turn reduce their risk of developing heart disease over the long term.”

The team notes, however, that their findings are subject to some limitations. For example, only 4% of women involved in the study had their first menstrual cycle at age 10 or younger, while only 1% of women had their first menstrual cycle at age 17 or older. As such, the team’s results were only relevant for a small number of participants.

In 2012, Medical News Today reported on a study led by researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, which linked the age of a woman’s first menstrual cycle to increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The researchers of that study, who assessed 1,638 women aged 40 years or older, found that earlier onset of menstruation was associated with increased risk of obesity later in life, which, in turn, raises the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“This research suggests that select female reproductive risk factors, specifically onset of menarche, are associated with overall adiposity, but not with specific indices of body fat distribution,” said lead author Dr. Subbulaxmi Trikudanathan.

“Ultimately,” he added, “the important question is whether female reproductive risk factors can be used to target lifestyle interventions in high-risk women to prevent the metabolic consequences of obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

Most recently, MNT reported on two studies revealing that a commonly prescribed antidepressant – fluoxetine, or Prozac – could be effective for preventing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).