AARP Eye Center
Each year, over one million women in the U.S. go through menopause, which can cause symptoms including hot flashes, weight gain, low or fluctuating libido and sleep problems. But there’s another change that carries even more health implications: an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Nearly two-thirds of those living with Alzheimer’s in the United States are women, a vulnerability that may begin as early as perimenopause, and relates to estrogen.
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“It’s not a surprise when you think about how many menopausal symptoms — including depression, anxiety and even cognitive fog — actually stem from the brain rather than the ovaries,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Research backs her up. Mosconi published a study this past June in the journal Scientific Reports that scanned the brains of 161 women between the ages of 40 and 65 who were in various stages of perimenopausal and post-menopausal transition. She found a trove of data on brain changes during menopause, including a decrease of both gray and white matter, increases in deposits of the Alzheimer’s-associated protein amyloid beta, and a decrease in glucose, the main fuel source for your body’s cells.
And estrogen plays a role in all of them. “We think about this hormone as mainly a reproductive hormone, but it’s actually the ‘master regulator’ of the female brain,” she explains. “It literally pushes neurons to burn glucose to make energy"; it’s also involved in growth, plasticity and immunity. As a result, it keeps your brain younger and healthier, she says.
As estrogen declines with age, she notes, "your neurons start slowing down and age faster.” This causes not only cognitive changes such as depression, anxiety and trouble concentrating, but other menopause-related symptoms. “When estrogen doesn’t activate the hypothalamus in the brain, it can’t regulate body temperature, which leads to hot flashes,” she explains. “When it doesn’t activate the part of the brain stem in charge of sleep and wake, we develop insomnia. And when it can’t activate the amygdala, the memory center of the brain, we get depressed, anxious — even forgetful.”