By Madhura Kadaba
In Gunter Grass’ The Flounder there’s a quote that goes roughly like this: Everyone has a memory of their mother lying down in a dark room with a migraine. It’s a quote that made me nod my head hard. (Not too hard.) Grass would have been interested in the new data about women and migraines.
Migraines are the worst kind of headaches, think of hammering a spot inside your skull non-stop for hours or days, and you get close to the agony they cause. They are three times more likely to affect women than men, almost a fifth of all women have migraines. What causes migraines has not been pinned down yet – there is some evidence that chemical and hormonal imbalances in the brain cause inflammation which leads to migraines – but a recent study suggests that women suffering from migraines are more likely to also suffer a heart attack or stroke, making finding a cure for migraines imperative.
(Migraine octopus via @almostinfamous)
The study followed more than 100,000 nurses, aged 25-42 in the US for over 20 years. About 15% of the women in the study reported that they had migraine symptoms, as diagnosed by their physicians. When compared to women without migraines, the migraineurs had about 50% increased risk in developing major cardiovascular disease including stroke, cardiovascular infarction and angina; the risk did not change across age, or statuses of oral contraceptive use, smoking or postmenopausal hormonal treatment. More women who suffered from migraines also died from cardiovascular diseases than those who did not. The news about increased risk for strokes is not new, but the new study highlights that the connection between migraines and vascular disease goes beyond the brain.
Another study this week looked into the link between hormones and migraines. The study followed 114 women who suffer from migraines and 223 who do not, all of whom kept daily headache diaries for 10 years. Their hormonal levels were measured across an entire menstrual cycle, one cycle per year, using urine samples. The study found that the women who have migraines frequently have faster drops in the hormone estrogen two days before their menstrual cycle starts.
It is unlikely that neither of these studies has uncovered the cause for migraines, but it is clear that the migraine and its cure need to start occupying a more prominent place in the minds of public health officials and health professionals. Migraines can no longer be taken as a minor health annoyance, with so many lives and productivity at stake.