Menopause is usually associated with physical discomfort—hot flashes, insomnia, sweating. But the hormonal changes that take place during menopause, which can be thrust upon younger women who have had their ovaries removed or who face other reproductive challenges, can have a profound effect on the mind, too.
We’ve heard from Dr. Gillian Einstein, Ph.D., about the protective effect estrogen offers the brain. A new study has found that menopause triggers the loss of a protein that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The study, conducted by Weill Cornell Medicine and the University of Arizona Health Sciences, might answer why women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s than men.
“This study suggests there may be a critical window of opportunity, when women are in their 40s and 50s, to detect metabolic signs of higher Alzheimer’s risk and apply strategies to reduce that risk,” said Dr. Lisa Mosconi, a lead author of the study.
The research looked at levels of glucose, which fuels cell activity, in the brains of women ages 40 to 60. About a third were pre-menopausal, a third were menopausal and a third were transitioning to menopause. The study found that those transitioning and those who were menopausal had much lower levels of glucose—an observation scientists have also seen in brains with Alzheimer’s in both mice and human studies.
The menopausal women and women transitioning to menopause scored lower on memory tests and had low levels of an enzyme associated with converting energy called mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase. Scientists believe menopause can kickstart a starvation reaction in brain cells that causes cell death in the long run.
“Our findings show that the loss of estrogen in menopause doesn’t just diminish fertility,” said Mosconi. “It also means the loss of a key neuroprotective element in the female brain and a higher vulnerability to brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease. We urgently need to address these problems because, currently, 850 million women worldwide are entering or have entered menopause. Our studies demonstrate that women need medical attention in their 40s, well in advance of any endocrine or neurological symptoms.”
However, the study looked at a very small number of women—only 43—and none of them had dementia. Researchers need to study a larger group of women for a longer period of time to learn more about these findings.
This study was published in the journal Plos One. You can read the full study here.