Like puberty, menopause is a milestone in a woman’s life, marking the end of her menstrual cycle. Though many women would be happy to say goodbye to a monthly period, some of the symptoms of menopause – such as hot flashes – are not very pleasant. Now, a new study suggests women who have more hot flashes while sleeping are more likely to exhibit certain brain changes.

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The latest study suggests women who have more hot flashes are more likely to have brain changes reflecting a higher risk for cerebrovascular disease.

Hot flashes are characterized by temporary but recurring flushes with a sensation of warmth or heat on the upper body and face. In the US, as many as 75% of menopausal women report experiencing hot flashes.

Though hot flashes in menopause usually follow a consistent pattern for each woman, they usually peak during the first 2 years of menopause and then decline over time.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania – with funding from the National Institutes of Health – investigated the connection between menopause-related hot flashes and brain health. They publish their study in the journal Menopause.

The team, led by Rebecca Thurston, PhD, says recent research has revealed that hot flashes can be linked to indicators of subclinical heart disease, including blood vessel changes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels.

To carry out their study, the researchers recruited 20 middle-aged women who were not taking hormone therapy. They biologically monitored their hot flashes for 24 hours by using a device that measures skin conductance. The participants also kept electronic hot flash diaries.

Fast facts about hot flashes
  • Most women have hot flashes for 6 months-2 years, but some studies say the average period is 3-5 years.
  • Hot flashes can linger for 10 years or more in some women.
  • In North America, only hormone therapy and an antidepressant called Brisdelle have government approval for treating hot flashes.

Learn more about menopause

In addition, the researchers performed MRI brain imaging on the women to look for white matter hyperintensities – bright spots that likely develop from disease of the brain’s small blood vessels.

Although the women self-reported an average of three hot flashes per day, the biological monitors showed an average of eight per day. It is likely that some of the hot flashes were not reported because they happened while the women were sleeping.

Results showed that the women who had more hot flashes – as detected by the monitor – as they slept, also had more white matter hyperintensities on their brain scans.

Thurston notes that other factors, such as age and cardiovascular risk factors, did not explain the effect. As such, she says their findings “suggest there is a relationship between menopausal hot flashes and blood vessel changes in the brain.”

However, she adds that more research is needed “to understand whether one causes the other, or if hot flashes are a signal of some other vascular process that impacts brain health.”

These findings may be particularly important for women to consider modifying certain risk factors for cardiovascular problems, such as stopping smoking or lowering high blood pressure – particularly women who are experiencing more hot flashes.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested overweight postmenopausal women are at increased risk of breast cancer.