Does it seem like your headaches get worse the older you get? Aging itself doesn't increase your risk for migraines, but some lifestyle factors can — which means adopting certain changes or habits as you get older might result in more debilitating head pain.
Most people who get migraines first recall being affected in childhood or adolescence, says Janet O'Mahony, MD, a primary care doctor who sees patients at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center. And in many cases, these headaches actually mellow with age.
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But if you're noticing that your existing migraines have gotten worse instead of better, a shift in habits could potentially be to blame.
Here's a look at six common culprits, plus how to find relief and when to talk with your doctor about your migraines.
1. You're Dealing With Added Stress
Unchecked stress is a leading cause of migraines as well as tension headaches, according to the Office on Women's Health. And coping with stress gets harder with age due to things like chronic illnesses, lack of sleep and common life challenges.
If you're juggling more than usual or navigating a major life event — like the death of a loved one, ending a relationship or making a big career change — you may start to be affected by those throbbing episodes more often. Especially if your usual stress-management strategies have fallen by the wayside.
2. You're Going Through Perimenopause
The hormones estrogen and progesterone, which influence the monthly menstrual cycle, can also affect chemicals in the brain that trigger headaches. Fluctuations in these hormones can become more drastic during perimenopause (the period when your body starts transitioning to menopause), which can result in more frequent, more severe migraines, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Other symptoms of perimenopause include irregular periods, hot flahes, vaginal dryness, mood changes and insomnia, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The good news is that hormone-related migraines don't usually last forever. "There's typically a drastic improvement after menopause," Dr. O'Mahony says.
3. You're Taking Certain Medications
If you recently started taking vasodilators to manage high blood pressure — a condition that becomes more common with age, per the National Institute on Aging — these meds could be the culprit behind your migraines, the Mayo Clinic notes.
The medications work by helping blood vessels expand to allow more blood to flow through, which can boost blood flow to the brain and potentially trigger a headache.
If you suspect a new medication is triggering migraines, talk with your doctor. You may be able to lower your dose or switch to another drug.
4. You're Drinking More Than Before
Gotten into the habit of having a second (or third) glass of wine with dinner or a nightcap afterwards? The booze could to blame for your head pain.
"Too much alcohol can cause more frequent headaches," Dr. O'Mahony says. In fact, about a third of people who get migraines say that drinking is a trigger, per Harvard Health Publishing. This is can specifically happen during the hangover period or when you drink wine.
Also? Getting older can make you more prone to a nasty hangover.
5. You're Having More Coffee Than Before
Like alcohol, caffeine can also be a migraine trigger, says Dr. O'Mahony. That's especially true if you've started having more than usual.
While about 85 percent of the U.S. population drinks at least one caffeinated beverage each day (think: coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks), per a January 2014 study in Food and Chemical Toxicology, caffeine intake is highest in adults ages 50 to 64.
People who have three or more caffeinated drinks per day are more likely to get a migraine compared to those who have just one or two, found an August 2019 study in the American Journal of Medicine.
If you're not used to having much caffeine at all, just one or two caffeinated drinks might be enough to make your head hurt.
6. You're Not Sleeping as Well
Aging often comes with more sleep troubles, including trouble falling asleep, waking up more often and waking up earlier, per the National Library of Medicine. And getting too little shut-eye is a common migraine trigger, Dr. O'Mahony says.
In a study of people who experience migraines, those whose sleep quality rated lowest tended to have a higher number of migraines per month compared to those who slept better, according to April 2019 results in Medicine.
Your insomnia can be caused by a mood disorder, like depression, or stress and anxiety, which may require you to see a mental health professional to get to the bottom of, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
How to Get Migraine Relief
There's no cure for migraines, but these headaches can be managed with a combination of medication and lifestyle changes:
- Take OTC meds: It's often possible to thwart an occasional headache with over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, Dr. O'Mahony notes. But beware: Taking OTC drugs for migraines more than two or three times per week can have a rebound effect that may make your headaches worse, warns the Cleveland Clinic.
- Ask about prescription meds: If you regularly experience migraines, prescription headache medications such as triptans, calcium channel blockers, calcitonin gene-related monoclonal antibodies, beta blockers, antidepressants or anti-seizure medications are a better choice.
- Dim the lights: It can be helpful to head to a dark, quiet room at the first sign of a headache. Drink some water, drape a cool, damp cloth over your forehead and try to close your eyes or even get some sleep, the Mayo Clinic recommends.
Once the headache subsides, take steps to keep your migraine from coming back:
- Get the right amount of sleep
- Stay hydrated
- Prioritize stress management
- Make time for exercise
- Keep a headache diary to track any possible triggers (like certain foods or drinks), then steer clear of them
When to See a Doctor About Migraines
Check in with your provider for migraines that happen regularly or get in the way of your everyday life.
"If the migraine is occurring more than once or twice a week or it is causing the patient to miss time from work or school, the patient should see a doctor," Dr. O'Mahony says.
You should also let your doctor know if you're over 50 and have never been affected by migraines before. That would warrant an aggressive workup to rule out any possible serious underlying causes, says Dr. O'Mahony.
In some cases, very intense headache symptoms warrant emergency medical attention. Call 911 if your headache feels explosive or causes slurred speech, vision changes, confusion, memory problems or balance problems, or if it comes with eye pain on one side that worsens with eye movement (or it's worse than a typical migraine), per the National Library of Medicine.
- Office on Women's Health: "Migraine"
- Mayo Clinic: "Headaches and hormones: What's the connection?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Vasodilators"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Alcohol and Headaches"
- American Journal of Medicine: "Prospective Cohort Study of Caffeinated Beverage Intake as a Potential Trigger of Headaches among Migraineurs"
- National Library of Medicine: "Aging changes in sleep"
- Medicine: "Associations Between Sleep Quality and Migraine Frequency"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Migraine Headaches"
- Mayo Clinic: "Migraine"
- National Library of Medicine: "Headaches - danger signs"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Perimenopause"
- National Institute on Aging: "High Blood Pressure and Older Adults"
- Food and Chemical Toxicology: "Beverage caffeine intakes in the U.S"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Depression and Sleep: Understanding the Connection"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.