Women who have migraines are at higher risk for heart attacks and strokes

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One in five people, mostly women, will have migraines for at least part of their lives. New research finds women with a history of those headaches are at higher risk for heart attacks and strokes.

Peggy Panis takes good care of herself, but she can't avoid one health problem. Migraines plague her about once a month. Even though she takes medicine at the first sign of a headache, she can still suffer.

"Sometimes I might have to say, you know what, I have to call it quits for the day," Panis said.

Research from the Nurses Health Study II finds there's another concern for women with a history of migraines. It looked at thousands of women over more than 20 years. Overall, women who'd had migraines were about 50 percent more likely to have cardiovascular disease compared to women who didn't have those headaches. They had a 40 percent higher risk of heart attacks and a 60 percent higher risk of strokes. Previous studies have also linked migraines to strokes, but not so much to heart trouble.

"I never even thought about it," Panis said.

The research didn't show why the association exists, but Dr. James O'Keefe of Saint Luke's Hospital says migraines, heart attacks and strokes all involve the lining of blood vessels misbehaving.

"Basically what happens is it's constricting at inappropriate times, and that's what causes a migraine headache, a cramping down of a blood vessel in the brain,"  Dr. O'Keefe said.

The heart specialist says women with migraines shouldn't be alarmed, but they should take the findings to heart.

"You'd have to think about -- don't smoke, don't drink too much, get your sleep, get your exercise, eat a healthy diet and try to do things specifically to keep stress under control," he said.

He added that those lifestyle habits can help in preventing both migraines and cardiovascular disease.

"Heart disease runs in my family, and I've got three kids, so I want to be around for a while," Panis said.

She says she'll keep walking and practicing other healthy habits.

The study is in the journal BMJ. Researchers say even though it only looked at women, there's no reason why it can't apply to men, too.

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