09/21/2012 11:20 am ET

Early Menopause Linked With Higher Stroke, Heart Disease Risk: Study

Hitting menopause early could increase a woman's chance of developing heart disease or having a stroke, according to a new study.

The new research, conducted by scientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and to be published in the journal Menopause, suggest that this increased stroke and heart disease risk applies to women who enter menopause before age 46 -- regardless of whether they entered it naturally, or because of a hysterectomy (a procedure where the ovaries are removed, often prompting the woman to enter menopause earlier).

The findings suggest that if a doctor has a patient who has entered early menopause, he or she can be extra-watchful and make the appropriate recommendations to decrease heart disease and stroke risk, the researchers said.

The new study included health data from 2,509 women ages 45 to 84, who were part of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Women began the study sometime between 2000 and 2002, and were followed up until 2008.

By the end of the study period, 28 percent had entered menopause before age 46 (considered early menopause). These women had a doubled risk of stroke and heart disease -- with 50 having some sort of heart event and 37 having a stroke during that time period -- compared with women who didn't enter menopause early. But researchers noted that the overall risk of both conditions in the early-menopause group was still quite low.

The researchers also didn't find a link between use of hormone replacement therapy -- sometimes used for menopause symptoms -- and stroke and heart disease risk.

But overall, researchers highlighted that healthy habits early in life are what matters.

"Cardiovascular disease processes and risks start very early in life, even though the heart attacks and strokes happen later in life," study researcher Dhananjay Vaidya, Ph.D., said in a statement. "Unfortunately, young women are often not targeted for prevention, because cardiovascular disease is thought to be only attacking women in old age. What our study reaffirms is that managing risk factors when women are young will likely prevent or postpone heart attacks and strokes when they age."