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Going through an early menopause raises a woman’s risk of heart disease and stroke, research found.

Experiencing the condition before 47 increased the danger of a heart attack by 29 per cent and stroke by 42 per cent.

Scientists believe this may be because the hormone oestrogen has a significant protective effect on the heart. The menopause, which occurs on average at the age of 51, happens when the body stops naturally producing oestrogen and other sex hormones.

Oestrogen helps blood vessels relax and, when supply decreases, arteries are likely to stiffen – a major cause of heart attacks.

Experts suspect an earlier menopause puts women at greater risk because they are exposed to oestrogen for less time. But the University of Oxford scientists said the link may also work in reverse – in that underlying heart problems trigger an early menopause.

Whatever the cause, there was a significant correlation between the age of menopause and heart problems. An estimated 1.9million women in Britain are going through the condition at any given time – around one in ten of whom begin early. The study, which tracked 267,440 women, also found girls whose periods started before the age of 13 were at greater risk of cardiovascular disease in later life. Further heart dangers were caused by pregnancy complications. Each case of miscarriage heightened the risk by 6 per cent, while a stillbirth resulted in a 22 per cent greater chance of cardiovascular disease and 44 per cent of stroke.

A hysterectomy was linked to a 12 per cent bigger likelihood of cardiovascular disease and a 20 per cent rise in heart attack risk.

Cardiovascular disease – a general term for all conditions affecting the heart or blood vessels – remains the leading cause of death and disability for men and women in the UK and worldwide but it can often be prevented with a healthy lifestyle.

The researchers wrote in the BMJ journal Heart: ‘This large, prospective study found that early menarche, early menopause, earlier age at first birth, and a history of miscarriage, stillbirth or hysterectomy, were each associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in later life, after controlling for key risk factors.

‘More frequent cardiovascular screening would seem to be sensible among women who are early in their reproductive cycle, or who have a history of adverse reproductive events or a hysterectomy, as this might help to delay or prevent their onset of cardiovascular disease.’

* Nearly half of women say their mental health has suffered as a result of the menopause, a poll of 50- to 60-year-olds for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour found.