Posted by Sarah Clachar
It’s the stuff of fairy tales and quite a few Harlequin romances. It may even play a treasured role in your own family history. Story after wonderful story tells of how two hearts find each other after a lifetime of travails and separation.
Underlying this story is the understanding that when it comes to matters of the heart . . . with age comes wisdom.
The older heart is the wiser one. It sees through the false glitter that may have interfered with valuing the object of its affection earlier. And it can truly appreciate the important things in life and love.
And more often than not, the older heart has learned to take the bumps and bruises of life in stride. Despite tribulations, it keeps loving. Often more deeply and more strongly than before. It has gained perspective and experience.
Aging Not So Gracefully
Unfortunately that is not reflected in the physical reality of our bodies. The wisdom that life’s challenges bring to us does not translate well to the muscle of our heart. Or the arteries that carry our life force around the body.
Instead, our heart is often tired and weaker than decades ago. It’s had to contract hundreds of millions of times to keep us alive. And with poor diet, stress and a few genetic factors thrown in, our body’s major highways – the arteries – have also suffered. Roadside debris litters our arteries in the form of plaques, threatening to dislodge and cause a fatal accident. And the artery walls themselves have toughened and thickened like a moss-overgrown battlements.
Older Women At Risk
These age-related problems haunt both men and women in their later years. But women have a particular angle on heart health. Before menopause, women lag far behind men when it comes to heart disease risk. We experience a tenth of the risk on average.
As we age, this changes and we start to catch up. By age 60 it becomes the main cause of death for women. In fact 6 times as many women die from heart disease than breast cancer.
Some of this is just the gradual effects of aging that both men and women face. But some seem to be more related to the change in hormones that comes with menopause.
A recent published study revealed just this. It turns out that cholesterol levels, a factor in heart disease risk, could be directly linked to this hormonal shift. Researchers from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) study reported in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, that within a year of their last period, women’s cholesterol levels consistently made a dramatic jump. On average, women’s LDL (or bad cholesterol) rose by about 10.5 points or 9% while average total cholesterol rose by about 6.5%.
In a Health Magazine interview, Dr. Vera Bittner, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the published study, noted that while the change may seem minor, it can be cumulative. And for women with borderline cholesterol health, it can make all the difference.
However, the authors of this study are careful to attribute only cholesterol levels to hormones. Others heart disease risk factors, like systolic blood pressure and insulin resistance, seemed to be more age-related.
Hormones and Heart Health: Dangerous Myths and Realities
Their caution comes on the heels of decades of medical misinformation that dumped all the risk factors for cardiovascular disease along with every other sign of female aging into estrogen-deficiency. In an eager push to get every menopausal woman on hormone replacement therapy (HRT), doctors added cardiovascular disease prevention to the list of benefits brought by adding more estrogen to our blood.
Actually, the opposite was true.
Two large-scale studies – The Boston Nurses Questionnaire Study conducted in 1991 and the Framingham Heart Study, conducted in 1985 – found nothing of the sort. In fact, not only did they find that taking synthetic estrogen did nothing to alter the risk of heart disease for women, they found that it actually increased the rate of stroke.
Researchers looking more closely into the hormone-heart disease relationship found that in fact, too much estrogen may actually undermine your cardiovascular health. In fact, it’s progesterone, the hormone that plays an opposite and complementary role in our menstrual cycle, that is more likely the key to post-menopausal heart health.
As Dr. Sherrill Sellman reports in her book, Hormone Heresy, progesterone helps keep cell membranes healthy while estrogen lets water and sodium into cells, contributing to high blood pressure.
Furthermore, progesterone reduces inflammation, one of the primary risk factors in heart disease. It helps with sleep. It reduces stress. And this hormone, which goes down to zero with menopause, actually helps us burn fats for energy.
And when it comes to plaques in our arteries, progesterone actually seems to help stop them from forming. According to the late hormone and cardiovascular disease researcher, Dr. John Lee, progesterone stops the creation of foam cells. Foam cells are immune system cells (macrophages) that take in oxidized bad cholesterol. As these cells gobble up unhealthy cholesterol, they swell up, causing the artery walls to bulge and toughen, shrinking the artery opening.
Progesterone stops this by intervening with the enzyme that allows macrophages to eat up cholesterol.
Beware of False Progesterones!
Back peddling furiously, several pharmaceutical companies added chemicals called progesterone to their therapeutic mixes. However, they are actually progestins, synthesized chemicals that closely resemble progesterone, but have been altered slightly in order to patent them.
These slight alterations can make all the difference in what happens once these progestins hit your body. Progestins interfere with the biological activity of natural progesterone and this production.
What You Can Do To Nourish Your Wise Heart
So take this extra bit of wisdom to heart. As you age, your heart needs a little tender loving care.
Your heart may not be as tough as you may be.
If you are considering HRT or any synthetic form of estrogen or progesterone, reconsider. If you’re using it now, look into tapering off. The costs to your aging heart are high.
Better alternatives are natural progesterone and its precursors found in plant sources like pomegranate leaves, soybeans and wild yam.
Exercise, eat right – all that good stuff. Both diet and activity can have a tremendous effect on cholesterol health. And they can also help us weather hormonal changes.
Make it a love story you write for yourself and those who love you. A promise to keep your heart – and the rest of you – strong and healthy for years to come.