The Merits of Menopause

Hot flashes can be torture, but they may help protect the heart

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Illustration by Daniel Horowitz for TIME

For most women, the "change of life" is not an easy one. The symptoms of menopause--mood swings, hot flashes and night sweats--can be intense, not to mention embarrassing, and in many cases they can interfere with daily life.

But there may be a healthy upside to those hot flashes, according to the latest research. It turns out that women who have these episodes in their 50s or 60s, the typical age range for menopausal symptoms, also have an 11% lower risk of heart disease over the next 10 years, compared with women who don't suffer the same symptoms. And because heart-disease risk increases in women's postmenopausal years as levels of the heart-protective hormone estrogen decline, this risk reduction is potentially lifesaving. Researchers don't know why the symptoms may reduce heart risk, but they theorize that the blood-vessel activity that occurs during flushing primes the heart and vessels to combat plaque buildup and hardening of arteries.

The results contradict previous studies, which linked intense menopausal symptoms to heart-risk factors such as high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. Those studies did not specify when women's symptoms were peaking, however, and may have included older women who were actually experiencing not menopausal changes but the symptoms of heart disease. In fact, the current study found that women reporting hot flashes years after menopause were 23% more likely to experience a heart event than women who weathered their most intense symptoms early in menopause.

Does this mean that women who treat their symptoms with hormone therapy might be missing out on potential health benefits? Not quite. Hormone therapy has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, so doctors use it sparingly--in the lowest possible doses and for the shortest time--simply to alleviate symptoms. That practice, say the study's authors, shouldn't change.

FERTILITY

Stressed? It Won't Hurt IVF Success

Here's welcome news for women undergoing infertility treatment: contrary to the belief that stress hampers one's chances of becoming pregnant, a new study found that high anxiety had no impact on women's success rates with in vitro fertilization (IVF), at least over a single cycle.

Researchers in the U.K. and Greece say that women who were stressed out while trying to conceive were just as likely to get pregnant through IVF as those reporting less tension. That seems to counter evidence that links stress to negative health effects, but experts point out that reproduction is such a fundamental part of survival that it may be spared the transient effects of emotional distress. In addition, the intensive hormone shots involved in IVF may override the body's natural response to stress.

But that doesn't mean stress doesn't influence pregnancy. It's not known, for example, whether the effects of anxiety increase over several cycles. Tension can also affect how emotionally prepared a woman or couple is to complete the difficult process of IVF.

PREVENTION

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