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NIH Research Matters

May 7, 2007

Migraines Tied to Greater Heart Attack Risk in Men

Men who suffer from migraine headaches may be at increased risk for heart attack and other types of cardiovascular disease, a large clinical study has found. The findings complement last year's report from the same research team, which found that women face a greater risk for cardiovascular disease if they have a history of migraines.

Photo of a man suffering with a migraine headache.

More than 28 million Americans suffer from intense migraine headaches, often described as a pulsing or throbbing in one area of the head. Additional symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Women are 3 times more likely than men to get migraines; they affect about 18% of women and 6% of men.

Last year, Dr. Tobias Kurth and his colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston studied nearly 28,000 women and found that migraine was associated with an elevated risk for cardiovascular disease, especially in women who had migraines with aura. During an aura, patients may see flashing lights or zigzag lines, or may temporarily lose vision in the minutes before the headache begins.

To see if migraine and cardiovascular health were also linked in men, the researchers studied 20,084 participants from the Physicians' Health Study. Launched in 1982, the study initially enrolled male physicians who were between the ages of 40 and 84 and who did not have a history of cardiovascular disease or other major illnesses. Since enrollment, participants have completed detailed medical questionnaires each year to record their health status. The study is supported by NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and National Cancer Institute (NCI).

Kurth and his colleagues classified nearly 1,500 men, or 7% of the study participants, as migraine sufferers because they reported having migraine symptoms during the first 5 years of evaluation. Of these, 434 of the men were deemed to have frequent migraines, with at least 4 episodes during that period.

After a followup that averaged nearly 16 years, the researchers found that the men with migraine had a 24% elevated risk for major cardiovascular disease and a 42% increased risk for heart attack compared with men who did not have migraine. The findings were reported in the April 23, 2007, issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The scientists noted that the frequency of migraines did not appear to affect cardiovascular risks. Because the study questionnaire did not ask about migraine aura, the researchers could not determine if aura was associated with elevated heart risks in men.

For both genders, the scientists say, the relationship between migraine and heart health is complex and unclear. There is no evidence that migraine itself contributes to cardiovascular disease. The researchers suggest that migraine may be an indicator of an underlying disorder like atherosclerosis, or a buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries. In any event, because of the apparent link between migraine and heart disease, migraine sufferers might be wise to take steps to reduce traditional cardiovascular risk factors, like high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and high cholesterol.

— by Vicki Contie

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Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.

This page last reviewed on January 11, 2011

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