In the past, the focus of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) has been on the menstrual cycle and a woman’s fertility. However, PCOS is a complex disorder that can impact many organ systems. If not well managed, PCOS can lead to serious long-term complications such as endometrial cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Women with PCOS do have a slightly higher chance of developing endometrial cancer than women who don’t have PCOS. The more irregular and fewer periods a woman has, the greater her risk becomes.
During a normal menstrual cycle, the endometrium is exposed to hormones, like estrogen, which cause the lining to proliferate and thicken. When ovulation does not occur, which is typical in PCOS, the lining is not shed and is exposed to much higher amounts of estrogen causing the endometrium to grow much thicker than normal. This is what increases the chance of cancer cells beginning to grow.
Establishing a regular menstrual cycle by restoring hormone balance is an important part of managing PCOS. A healthy diet, exercise, and weight loss are important. Besides oral contraceptives, metformin and inositol can also help to improve menstrual regularity in some women with PCOS.
Having PCOS increases a woman’s chances of getting high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. This is due to the high insulin levels that have been associated with PCOS and are known to increase one’s risk for high triglycerides, inflammatory markers, blood pressure, and atherosclerosis. These conditions can increase your risk for a heart attack and stroke.
Women with PCOS frequently have insulin resistance, meaning their body is resistant to using glucose properly resulting in higher glucose levels and more insulin produced. Over time, consistently high levels of glucose in the blood can lead to diabetes.
A 2012 study published in Diabetes, which following 255 women with PCOS for 10 years, reported that 39.3% of the women developed type 2 diabetes compared to only 5.8% of women in the general population.
Metabolic Syndrome, or Syndrome X, is a grouping of risk factors that commonly occur together and increase one’s risk for cardiovascular disease. The most common metabolic changes associated with this syndrome include the following:
- Increased abdominal weight
- High levels of triglycerides.
- Low levels of good cholesterol, or HDL
- High blood pressure
- High fasting blood sugar
Due to its link to obesity and insulin resistance, women with PCOS have a roughly one-in-three chance of developing metabolic syndrome.
How to Reduce Your Risk
Despite the increased risks for complications in PCOS, they are preventable. The first and foremost thing you can do is make lasting positive changes in your diet and exercise plans. Consider consulting with a registered dietitian nutritionist to help you. Adding in just a little bit of activity each week can be very helpful. In fact, starting with a commitment to walk 10,000 steps each day is a great way to get started.
Getting blood work done at least annually will help you to know your risk factors. Talk to your healthcare provider about your risk factors and what medications or supplements may help prevent them. Being proactive with your health is the key to taking control over PCOS before it controls you.