Mind Your Heart: Migraines Linked to Heart Disease

February is American Heart Month, and many patients and health care providers are pondering ways to improve cardiovascular health and prevent heart disease. A study published in the February 10, 2010 online issue of the Journal of Neurology may give patients suffering from migraines greater incentive to get heart healthy.

Scientists surveyed 11,346 American adults with and without migraines and discovered a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease in those who struggle with migraines. The nature of the relationship between the 2 conditions is still unclear; however, the study’s findings may lead to new approaches in the treatment and diagnosis of both migraines and heart problems.

In the study, migraines with aura—the cluster of neurological symptoms that precede pain in roughly 20% of patients—were the strongest predictors of heart attack, peripheral arterial disease (PAD), and stroke. Migraines without aura were also linked to increased cardiovascular risk, but only for heart attack and PAD.

In the comparison group of non-migraine patients, rates of heart attack and stroke were 2% and 1.2%, respectively. Among the 6100 migraine patients studied, risk nearly doubled in both categories. A total of 4% of migraine patients reported a history of heart attack, and 2% reported a history of stroke. Upon further analysis, researchers found that the increased stroke risk could be attributed entirely to patients with migraine plus aura, 4% of whom reported a history of stroke.

Despite the troubling jumps in both risk categories, researchers were careful to note that absolute risks of 4% and 2% are still considered small, and that patients with migraines should not be alarmed by the findings. They did discover, however, that migraine patients were also more prone to traditional cardiovascular risk factors—including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes—than the comparison group. This raises concern, and points to an increased need for preventive care in patients with migraines.

Reuters reports an interesting theory posited by the study’s authors: that migraines and cardiovascular disease are both caused by “dysfunctional blood vessels.” Because pain from migraines is thought to come from the tightening and expanding of blood vessels in the brain, this theory may have merit and could lead future research in a new direction.

Regardless of the relationship between the 2 afflictions, experts are advocating that migraine patients take extra care to protect their hearts in as many ways as possible. In the spirit of American Heart Month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a heart disease prevention resource that collects current insights on causes and risk factors, signs and symptoms, and nutrition and fitness. The American Heart Association also offers sound advice for heart health on its Web site. For information on migraine management, pharmacists should visit the Migraine Resource Center.