Women with abnormal periods, polycystic ovarian syndrome, may be at risk for several heart problems, according to a first-of-its-kind joint study from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Apple and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, is characterised by heavy periods, long menstrual cycles, and hormonal imbalances that cause weight gain, excess facial hair, and acne among other symptoms. Though PCOS is known to impact periods and menstruation, it is closely linked to heart and circulatory health.
The study released ahead of International Women’s Day, said women with PCOS may have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
Shruthi Mahalingaiah, the co-principal investigator and assistant professor of environmental, reproductive, and women’s health at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health said, “Despite the association between PCOS and heart-related conditions, historically, research studies about heart health have not included information about menstrual cycles. More broadly speaking, menstrual health is also significantly under-represented in the research space.”
She explained, “Our study is filling a research gap by diving deeper into understanding how periods and menstrual cycles can be a window into overall health.”
More than 37,000 women were surveyed and asked questions about gynaecological conditions, family medical history, and heart health. Approximately 30,000 answered questions about their menstrual cycle overtime on the Apple Health app of the surveyed.
In a preliminary analysis of a cohort of Apple Women’s Health Study participants, 12 per cent of study participants reported a PCOS diagnosis. Participants with PCOS were diagnosed between ages 14 and 35, with a median age of 22 years old.
A total of 23 per cent of participants with PCOS also had a family history of PCOS and were more likely to have unpredictable menstrual cycles after menarche, or first period.
Participants with PCOS in this cohort have a higher prevalence of conditions that can negatively impact heart health. According to the study, these participants were almost four times more likely to have pre-diabetic conditions, three times more likely to have Type 2 diabetes, and two times more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The prevalence of obesity was almost double for participants with PCOS than participants without PCOS. A majority, 61 per cent, of participants with PCOS reported obesity, defined by a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30 kg/m2. Irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia was more common among participants with PCOS (5.6 per cent) than participants without PCOS (3.7 per cent).
However, Mahalingaiah said there are ways for people with PCOS or a heart condition to manage their symptoms.
“Health care providers may recommend lifestyle changes to promote menstrual regularity and improve your heart health, including changing your exercise routine, eating more nutritious food, getting better sleep, staying hydrated, and taking care of your mental health,” she explained.
“Research insights from our study may also help to reinforce the importance of prevention in reproductive care and in the treatment of PCOS. By increasing access to PCOS clinics and encouraging lifestyle interventions at the primary care level, health care providers will be able to provide better quality care to people with PCOS across the lifespan,” she stated.