The findings of a new study have suggested that the age a woman reaches menopause has an impact on blood flow changes in the brain and on white matter lesions that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This is believed to be the first study to provide significant clues about the main cause of significant health challenges women in menopause face, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and dementia.
Brain health in menopause
As estrogen levels decline beginning in perimenopause, a vast number of changes occur in the body, including neurological changes. This includes changes in the form and structure, number, and interactions between nerve cells, and how they function. Some of the neurological symptoms women can experience in perimenopause and menopause include sleep disorders, forgetfulness, brain fog, mood swings, and hot flashes.
Because estrogen is involved in the metabolism of glucose in the brain, declining levels of the hormone results in reduced brain activity. Estrogen is also essential for activating the hypothalamus, and when this function declines, the brain can’t regulate body temperature correctly, resulting in hot flashes. The inability of estrogen to activate the brainstem properly can also result in problems with sleep. Fluctuating levels of estrogen in areas of the brain involved with emotions and memory lead to mood swings and forgetfulness.
New brain health study
The new study was conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and involved 35 healthy postmenopausal women who were grouped into two classifications: early-onset menopause (19 women; age at menopause, 47 years) and later-onset menopause (16 women; age at menopause, 55 years). The scientists gathered data on various factors, including artery blood velocity, artery blood pressure, brain volume, and white matter hyper-intensities. The latter factor involves lesions in the white matter of the brain, which is found in the deeper regions of the brain. White matter contains nerve fibers that allow the transfer of information and communication between different areas of the brain.
The scientists used doppler technology and magnetic resonance imaging and found that women who experienced early-onset menopause had less responsive blood flow in their brain, higher blood pressure, and more brain lesions associated with cognitive decline than women in the later-onset group. These findings indicate that a woman’s age at natural menopause has an impact on cerebrovascular function and the structure of the white matter in the brain. They also provide insights into how menopause changes the body and why women are at greater risk for certain health conditions in menopause.
According to Erin Moir, who was the lead author of the study, “it’s very important to understand the changes to cerebrovascular function and brain health that come with menopause” so researchers can better uncover ways to mitigate the health challenges women in menopause face and help support better health in the later years.
Women in perimenopause and menopause face a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, and stroke. These challenges have been the topic of continuing research and efforts to find ways to better understand, prevent, and manage them. This latest study sheds new light on a core cause of these ongoing health concerns.