Health experts previously believed that risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and stroke in women increase in severity after menopause, but findings of a new study suggest otherwise.

Researchers have found evidence suggesting that risk factors linked to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes such as high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels and abnormal cholesterol level increase before, and not after, a woman goes through menopause.

Study researcher Mark DeBoer, from the University of Virginia, and colleagues found that the rapid increase in the risk factors begins before the last menstrual period. The dangerous period lies before and during menopause, but the transition begins earlier and progresses faster in black women.

For their study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association on Aug. 3, DeBoer and colleagues looked at the medical records of about 1,500 women, who were tracked for a period of 10 years as they transitioned through menopause.

The researchers looked for five risk factors for heart disease and stroke, namely large waistline, low levels of good cholesterol called HDL, high blood pressure, high blood fat levels and high blood sugar, which altogether are known as metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome significantly boosts a person's risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

The researchers found that the severity of metabolic syndrome in women rapidly increased during the premenopausal and perimenopausal periods, which is right before menopause.

The increased risk appears to be more related to the changes that happen as women go through menopause and less to the changes that occur after menopause.

"These data suggest that the higher prevalence of MetS in postmenopausal women may be caused more by changes during the menopausal transition than by postmenopause," the researchers wrote in their study. "These findings may thus have implications regarding the timing of cardiovascular risk relative to menopause."

The take-home message, the researchers said, is that women should pay attention to their lifestyle and make changes if needed before menopause. They urged women to ensure that their weight is under control, and that they eat a healthy diet and are getting sufficient amounts of exercise.

The researchers acknowledged that everyone should eat better and get enough exercise, but the transition years to menopause offer a good window of opportunity to make lifestyle improvements.

"The years transitioning to menopause may represent a 'teachable moment,' when patients are especially receptive to learning and putting into practice healthy habits that can make a difference in their cardiovascular disease risk," DeBoer said.

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