Marsha T. saw the lights of pain coming. They flashed and zigzagged before her eyes. Her visual field shrank into a tunnel. A registered nurse, she knew what was next. In about 30 minutes, a familiar sharp, pulsating pain ripped through her head. Now 48 years old, she had been suffering from migraine headaches with aura since she was a teenager.
When the intense pain subsided, she relished the relief, but knew that the headaches would be back. Some 28 million people in the United States, most of them women, suffer from such repetitive, life-spoiling pain. And if that’s not bad enough, evidence is accumulating that migraines are linked to an increased risk of major cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack.
A new study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health has found that women who experience migraine with aura have double the risk of major cardiovascular events compared with women who are free from these headaches. The researchers followed 27,840 nurses and other female health professionals, 45 years and older, for an average of 10 years. Those who endured migraine were more than twice as likely to have heart attacks and strokes as those who did not. And they were more than twice as likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
No one knows why. To add to the mystery, it was only women who live with migraine plus aura who were found to be at increased risk. “Active migraine without aura was not associated with increased risk of any cardiovascular event, including coronary revascularization and angina,” reports Tobias Kurth, an assistant professor of medicine who works at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Revascularization includes bypass surgery and techniques to open up arteries in the heart; angina involves a strangling heaviness or pain in the chest due to partially blocked coronary arteries.