PITTSBURGH — It's often normal to pick up pounds as we age, but for women it can be more than a little in the middle.
Scientists say that could be harmful to their heart health.
"We were able to identify the time point at which women start to accumulate the fat in the abdomen in particular, women start to accumulate two years before their final menstrual period," explained Pitt Graduate School of Pubic Health researcher Samar El Khoudary.
Menopause does not cause heart disease; however, certain risk factors involving menopause can increase the chances of developing heart disease.
A high fat diet, smoking, or other unhealthy habits that can become an issue early on in life can also add to the risk of heart disease.
At Pitt, the scientists used CT scans to measure the adipose tissue or the fat surrounding the organs in a women's abdomen.
The researchers found the abdominal fat increased by about eight percent per year.
"This increase happening during this period in particular, put women at higher risk of developing carotid atherosclerosis," said El Khoudary:
The researchers also used ultrasound to measure the thickness of the carotid artery lining in the neck and found for every 20 percent increase in belly fat, the thickness of the carotid artery grew by two percent, an early indicator of heart disease.
El Khoudary says the earlier women know their risk, the earlier they can adopt lifestyle changes to lower their chances of developing heart disease.
It's an "age thing", right?
After the age of 50, women are at risk for developing heart disease.
A healthy lifestyle can reduce this.
Quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising, eating well, and treating medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure can all reduce the risk of heart disease in menopausal women.
When the estrogen in women drops, they can develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, and weight gain.
Heart disease symptoms include palpitations, shortness of breath, pressure in the chest, headaches, lightheadedness or dizziness, jaw ache, swelling of the feet, and difficulty lying flat.
While menopausal symptoms are normal, experiencing anything heart related should be discussed with a doctor since there is a higher risk of developing heart disease.
Is hormone therapy an option?
Studies are still being done to see if hormone therapy can reduce the risk of heart disease in menopausal women.
At the present time, the study shows it should not be used as the primary or secondary tactic in reducing heart disease in women.
However, there is recent evidence suggesting that women in early menopause with good cardiovascular health and who are low risk of developing heart disease could be considered for hormone therapy as a treatment to prevent heart disease.
If a woman is older than 65, hormone therapy is not recommended.