Q. I have frequent migraine headaches. Does this increase my risk of memory loss or dementia?
A. This is a logical question, given that some studies have linked migraine headaches to an increased risk of symptomatic stroke as well as "silent" stroke. As we wrote in June, multiple "silent" or unnoticed strokes may lead to progressive memory loss, cognitive decline, and dementia. Your question is particularly important for women, since we are more likely to have migraine headaches than men, and we also have a higher prevalence of dementia.
Fortunately, findings from the Women's Health Study are reassuring on this topic. The Women's Health Study is a randomized, prospective study involving 39,876 U.S. female health professionals ages 45 and older. In 1998, a subset of 6,377 women ages 65 and older were tested for memory and reasoning (cognition), and asked about past or current migraine headaches. These women were followed for an average of three and a half years. Those who had migraine were not at greater risk for cognitive decline compared with those who did not have migraine.
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Although the study had a short follow-up period, it involved a very large number of women, giving its conclusions heft. It should be reassuring to you and other women who have migraines. Nevertheless, don't give up any measures you are taking to reduce your risk of stroke. If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or elevated cholesterol (especially LDL, or "bad" cholesterol), or if you are obese, work with your doctor to control these conditions. If you have atrial fibrillation (an abnormal heart rhythm), ask your doctor if you are a candidate for drugs that prevent clots from forming. Make time for regular physical activity, aiming for 30 minutes of exercise a day. If you smoke, take measures to stop.
— Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D.
Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch