As many as 50 to 85 percent of women will experience hot flashes in the time leading up to and during menopause, according to Christine Northrup, M.D., women’s health expert. Depending on duration, frequency, and intensity, they can range from an annoyance to a complete disruption of your daily life. But is there more to them than just a flush of warmth and inconvenient sweating?
Research suggests there may be a correlation between menopausal hot flashes and a woman’s risk for certain medical conditions in the future. While most hot flashes are harmless, there may be times they are a signal to see your doctor about other areas of your health.
According to a study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, hot flashes during menopause can indicate an increased risk for osteoporosis. Women ages 50 to 79 reporting moderate to severe hot flash symptoms showed lower bone density than women who showed no symptoms, allowing for a higher chance of bone fractures in the future.
Women who experience hot flashes are urged to consume adequate calcium and vitamin D, refrain from smoking, and limit alcohol consumption to moderate amounts. Weight-bearing exercise is also beneficial. Your doctor can perform a bone density test to decide if osteoporosis medication may be needed.
When it comes to your heart, the when of hot flashes is an important marker. Women who experience hot flashes early in their menopause transition have shown to have a slightly lower risk of heart attack according to the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study (WHI-OS). But women who have hot flashes later in menopause have a slightly increased risk. The risk can also continue to increase over the years.
“Hot flashes that start when you’re older, past menopause, are linked to [higher risk of] heart disease,” says Cynthia Stuenkel, M.D., clinical professor of medicine at the University of California in San Diego and co-author of the book “Menopause Practice: A Clinician’s Guide.”
, found much higher HDL (“good”), LDL (“bad”), and triglycerides in women who experienced frequent hot flashes compared to women who were not experiencing hot flashes at all. These results were independent of other predisposing risk factors such as weight and age.
Women who suffer from thyroid issues may not be diagnosed right away because the symptoms, including hot flashes, are very similar to menopause. “Hot flashes may be a sign of the menopausal transition or of other medical conditions such as thyroid disease,” says Anne Z. Steiner, M.D., M.Ph., assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
If not treated, thyroid disease can increase your risk for heart disease and osteoporosis, according to researchers from Boston University Medical Center. A simple blood test for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) at your doctor’s office can help you if you’re experiencing menopause or thyroid issues.
Luckily, hot flashes can also be a signal of something positive: a reduced risk of breast cancer. According to , women who experienced hot flashes and other menopause symptoms faced only half the risk of two common types of breast cancer. More severe hot flashes correlated to lower risk.
Overall, hot flashes are a natural reminder that you are moving into a new phase of life – one that brings physical changes with it. It’s time to pay closer attention to your body, especially when it concerns your cardiovascular and bone health. Speak to your doctor about scheduling regular checkups and starting to monitor important factors such as blood pressure, glucose and cholesterol levels, thyroid function, and bone density.