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A new study has challenged the long-held assumption that women face a substantially elevated risk of heart disease after menopause.

Using mortality statistics from the United States and Britain, researchers found that heart disease in women progresses at a constant rate as they age.

"Nothing special happens at menopause," said the study's lead author, Dhananjay Vaidya of Johns Hopkins University's school of medicine in Baltimore, Md.

Dr. Vaidya noted that physicians long ago observed women tend to suffer from heart attacks at a later age than men. So it was hypothesized that the female hormone estrogen protected women in some way from cardiovascular disease. Only after menopause, when estrogen levels decline, were women considered to be at increased risk of heart problems, according to conventional medical wisdom. (In fact, one reason doctors used to prescribe hormone replacement therapy was to provide continuing protection for women's hearts following menopause.)

But the new findings, published in the British Medical Journal, showed that the number of women who die each year from heart disease increases exponentially at roughly 8 per cent annually. And, at menopause, there was no increase in female mortality rates above and beyond the steady curve.

In others the words, the aging process – and not dwindling estrogen – explains the increased number of deaths as women age, Dr. Vaidya said.

While the study torpedoed one hypothesis, it raises a larger question about why some men succumb to heart disease at younger ages than women. "Something is happening early in the young adult life of men," he said. "Hopefully, our study will direct people to more fruitful research."