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Menopause

Updated 02 October 2020

Blood vessel growth in muscle is reduced in women after menopause, study finds

Postmenopausal women have a significantly reduced ability to form tiny blood vessels, increasing their chance of developing disease later in life – but exercising early on may help.

  • A recently published study details the findings of two groups of women: premenopausal and postmenopausal
  • According to the paper, blood vessel growth in muscle was found to be reduced in women post-menopause
  • The researchers suggest that exercising before women enter menopause may help

The formation of very tiny blood vessels, known as capillaries, is impaired in the muscle tissue of postmenopausal women, a new study from the University of Copenhagen has found.

Capillaries play an important part in the functioning of our bodies as they transport oxygen and nutrients to the body's cells, and are needed for absorbing sugar and fat into muscles. The loss of capillaries can also contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, as it affects insulin resistance.

"The study supports the idea that women benefit from being physically active prior to menopause, while their oestrogen levels are high,” said Line Norregaard Olsen, a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen's Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports in a news release.

How they reached these findings

For the study, two groups of women had thigh muscle biopsies taken, which were used to determine the number of capillaries in their muscles, as well as to analyse several muscle-specific proteins.

The first group included women between 59 and 70 years old (postmenopausal) and the second group included five women between the ages of 21 and 28 (premenopausal).

Using stationary spin bikes, the older group was trained over an eight-week period, three times weekly, at moderate to high intensity.

After the eight weeks of aerobic exercise, the fitness of the postmenopausal women improved by 15%. However, the researchers also found that this group was unable to increase the number of capillaries in skeletal muscle tissue.

Olsen commented that exercise is important as it provides women with a better physical starting point as they enter menopause:

“Even though eight weeks of training of the post-menopausal women had a noteworthy effect on some parameters, it had no effect on capillary formation in muscle. A sufficient number of capillaries in muscle is important for muscle function and reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes."

Cardiovascular system: differences between men and women

Professor Ylva Hellsten, also of UCPH's Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports, and the study’s principal investigator, explained:

"It is important to emphasise that both men and women are greatly served by being physically active throughout life, regardless of their age.

“But the current study suggests that there are some crucial differences between men and women in the way that the cardiovascular system is affected by ageing and physical activity. As a result, this study should lead to an adjustment of the training recommendations for women in this age group."

The researchers aim to evaluate which training is most effective to develop the health of postmenopausal women in their future studies.

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Image: Getty