In addition to other health changes, women in menopause can experience a sharp increase in cholesterol levels. LDL (“bad” cholesterol) can go up, while HDL (“good” cholesterol) can go down.
In addition to LDL and HDL changes, triglycerides, a form of fat stored in your body, also tend to increase during this time. In combination with other changes (such as a greater risk of having high blood pressure) women are more likely to develop heart disease after menopause.
One study1 tracked 1,054 U.S. women as they went through menopause. They were tested each year for ten years for cholesterol, blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. Over the two-year period surrounding their last menstrual cycle, average LDL rose by 10.5 points (about nine percent). The average total cholesterol (LDL level plus HDL level plus one-fifth of triglyceride levels) rose by about 6.5 percent.
Other numbers that increased did so at a steady pace, which led researchers to believe they were related to aging. Cholesterol, however, spiked dramatically.
These numbers may seem small, but they represent a significant increase at a time in which other heart disease risk factors are rising for women. Insulin and blood pressure levels also tend to increase as women age.
The following steps may be needed to help protect your heart during menopause:
Depending on your other risk factors, your doctor may want to test your cholesterol more frequently once you enter menopause. This is especially true if you have a family history of heart disease.
Regular exercise is an important tool to help lower your cholesterol levels and overall heart disease risk. Try to reach 150 minutes of physical activity each week (30 minutes, 5 times a week). Anything that gets your heart rate up is a good choice, such as walking, gardening, raking leaves or swimming.
Extra pounds can increase your cholesterol levels and also raise your risk of heart disease. If you need to lose weight, you may need to increase your exercise to about an hour a day and/or limit calories to 1,200-1,500 a day. Your doctor or a registered dietitian can work with you to figure out the best levels of exercise and a meal plan that’s right for you to achieve your weight loss goals.
A diet low in saturated fats helps reduce cholesterol levels. This means limiting whole-fat dairy products, poultry with the skin on, fried foods, fatty meats and packaged baked goods. The National Institutes of Health recommends about 1,800 calories a day for women who don’t need to lose weight.
Medication is sometimes needed to help keep cholesterol levels in check if lifestyle changes don’t keep your levels low enough. Statins are often doctors’ first choice because they are often very effective at lowering cholesterol levels.
Hormone therapy may help with the effects of both menopause and high cholesterol, but it’s also been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer after menopause.
If you’re experiencing menopause—or are of an age where menopause may occur in the near future—it’s important to talk to your doctor about any effects this may have on your cholesterol levels, particularly if you already have high cholesterol. He or she can help you develop a plan, based on your risk factors, to help you maintain good cholesterol levels for a healthier heart.