Women suffering from severe migraines often have warning signs or “auras” minutes before the debilitating headaches take hold. They see wavy lines, spots or flashings lights; some people also feel numbness in their hands. Studies now show that women who have migraines with auras, and a certain mutation in their genes, may have a high risk for heart disease and stroke.
Migraines, heart disease and strokes are all health issues related, in some fashion, to blood vessels. Clots or leaks in blood vessels within the brain cause strokes, and unusual changes in pressure within the brain’s blood vessels are thought associated with migraine headaches. Clots or damage to blood vessels in the heart can lead to coronary disease.
These connections have led researchers to study how often severe migraines might be associated with cardiovascular disease and stroke particularly in women because women are more likely than men to have migraine headaches.
One report, the Women’s Health Study published in 2006, looked at more than 27,000 US participants aged 45 years or older over a period of 12 years. The study found that the women who had migraines with auras had a two-fold increase in risk for heart disease and stroke compared with women who had migraines without auras or those who didn’t have migraines at all.
A more recent report published this year in the journal Neurology now finds that a specific gene mutation can increase that risk to nearly four-fold in women with severe migraines. The mutation occurs within the MTHFR gene, a regulator of homocysteine levels in the body. Having both the gene mutation and severe migraines is required for increasing the risk for cardiovascular problems, although the experts don’t quite know why yet.
“This gene by itself does not appear to increase the risk for overall and for specific cardiovascular disease, but rather this research suggests a possible connection between the gene variant and migraine with aura,” says primary author Tobias Kurth, M.D. at Harvard Medical School in Boston.