Bloomberg News

Aura Migraines Linked to Heart Attack Risk for Women

January 15, 2013

Women who suffer from migraines with visual disturbances like flashing lights, called aura, may be at a higher risk for heart attack and stroke, research found.

A study of almost 28,000 women showed that migraine with aura was the second-strongest individual contributor to danger of heart attack and stroke after high blood pressure, said Tobias Kurth, lead author of the research released today by the American Academy of Neurology. A second study found that women who suffer from migraines with aura and who use newer forms of birth control may have a greater risk of blood clots.

About 30 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches and about 1 in 5 will experience an aura where they see flashing lights or blind spots 10 minutes to 30 minutes before an attack, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Migraine with aura is a strong relative contributor to increased risk of cardiovascular disease events,” Kurth, director of research at INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Bordeaux, and adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said in a Jan. 14 e-mail.

Of the 27,860 women from the Women’s Health Study who were included in the 15-year research, 1,435 had migraine with aura.

Scientists don’t understand how migraines with aura may contribute to heart attacks and stroke, Kurth said.

Previous Research

A 2010 study in the British Medical Journal found that men and women who suffer from migraine with aura had a greater risk of dying from stroke or heart disease, as well as from all causes. Those who didn’t have aura with their migraine headaches had no increased danger.

The findings show that those with aura migraines should try to make changes in their lives associated with a lower risk of heart attack or stroke -- not smoking, keeping their weight down, reducing their blood pressure and exercising, Kurth said.

In the second study released today, researchers identified 145,304 women who used older birth control like Ortho Novum, Ortho Tri Cyclen and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA)’ Seasonique, and newer contraceptives like Bayer AG (BAYN)’s Yasmin, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ:US)’s Ortho Evra patch and Merck & Co. Inc. (MRK:US)’s NuvaRing. The contraceptives are called combined hormonal birth control because they include estrogen and progestin. Of those, 2,691 had migraine with aura and 3,437 had migraine without aura.

The preliminary findings suggest that a large proportion of women who suffer from migraine with aura and used combined hormonal birth control at some point had an elevated risk for blood clot complications like deep vein thrombosis compared to those who didn’t use the contraceptives, said Shivang Joshi, the lead study author.

More studies are needed to better understand the link between the contraceptives and migraine with aura, Joshi, a clinical neurologist and headache fellow at Brigham and Women’s Falkner Hospital and a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a Jan. 14 telephone interview.

The studies will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in San Diego in March.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Ostrow in New York at nostrow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net


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