You'd be hard put to find a woman who wanted a longer menopause, with its constellation of annoying symptoms. But a lengthier change of life may have one health advantage: women who transition more quickly through menopause appear to face an increased risk of "preclinical atherosclerosis." This is a tongue-twisting term for a condition in which the arteries narrow as their walls thicken. Researchers found that women who went from being premenopausal to postmenopausal in three years experienced more buildup of fatty plaque in their carotid arteries. This may put the women who had a quicker menopause at an increased risk for developing heart disease. 

"We know that more fatty plaque accumulation predicts future heart attacks and strokes, but this is our first venture into this particular line of inquiry," said cardiologist C. Noel Bairey Merz, principal investigator of the study, which was part of the multifaceted Los Angeles Atherosclerosis Study (LAAS). "This is an observational study, which doesn't provide specific recommendations for patient evaluation and treatment but it does raise questions." Bairey Merz was quoted in a news release from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she is a professor of medicine.

Included in the observational study were 203 women who were between the ages of 45 and 60 when they entered the study. Of these, 52 were premenopausal, 20 were perimenopausal, and 131 were postmenopausal. None had ever been diagnosed with heart disease, and they were followed for three years.

Merz cautions that women should not try to self-diagnose or assume they may be at higher risk if they are experiencing symptoms.

"Women will say they're perimenopausal because they're having hot flashes or sleep disturbances or some cycle irregularity, but those are all symptoms," she noted in a news release from Cedar-Sinai Medical Center. "We use a very specific code of definitions to assess hormones and whether or not the ovaries are cycling."

All women from the age of 21 should have an annual checkup that includes measurements of height, weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, she says.

Menopause in general can increase the risk of heart disease, experts say. Menopause causes LDL, cholesterol and triglyceride levels to rise, which increases the risk of heart disease, explains Dr. Nieca Goldberg, author of Complete Guide to Women's Health and associate professor at New York University's Women's Heart Program. A woman's estrogen levels decrease during menopause, she explains. Blood pressure levels rise and blood vessels aren't as flexible. Women should definitely be getting regular checkups, especially if they have an early menopause.

"If you experience menopause at a younger age, you need to get an earlier evaluation  for risk factors like cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes," Goldberg explains. Under 35 years of age is officially early menopause, Goldberg explains, and 51 is the average age for menopause to start.