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Menopause linked to higher brain aneurysm risk

December 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
They sit silently in the heads of millions of Americans. They can burst without warning. Brain aneurysms rupture in about 30,000 people every year, killing or disabling many.

Women are at a higher risk for aneurysms than men. Now, researchers are taking a closer look at how a major change in a woman's life could be to blame.

Sande Skinner thought she was having a stroke.

"The left side of my body got numb," said Skinner. "It didn't feel right."

Skinner had a giant aneurysm right behind her right optic nerve. If ruptured, brain aneurysms can lead to stroke or death. Risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure and possibly lower estrogen levels caused by menopause. Two of the largest brain aneurysm trials in the world found most happen in menopausal women.

"Average age of rupture of all patients with aneurysms is age 52, which just so happens to be the average age of menopause," said Dr. Dr. Michael Chen, a neurointerventionalist at Rush University Medical Center.

Chen says severe drops in estrogen may contribute to the weakening of artery walls. He conducted a study of 60 women with aneurysms and found, compared to the general population, they were less likely to have taken birth control or to be on hormone replacement therapy. He believes estrogen treatments could help prevent women from developing aneurysms.

"[It could] protect them from the effects of these severe changes and hormones on their blood vessels," said Chen.

The doctor is enrolling a new trial to put his theory to the test. He'll use low-dose hormone replacement therapy in premenopausal women in hopes of stopping aneurysms from forming. After three surgeries and several stents, Skinner's aneurysm is no longer a threat.

"I'm still walking and talking," said Skinner.

Chen hopes his research will help wipe out the threat for every woman.


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