New research suggests that changes in women’s bodies as a result of menopause may make them more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease. Aside from old age, being female is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, as two-thirds of Alzheimer’s sufferers in the United States are women. Because of that heightened risk, researchers speculated that something about menopause may help trigger the development of Alzheimer’s.
A small study of 43 women between the ages of 40 and 60 sought to figure out what changes in menopause might be responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s. Roughly a third of the women were premenopausal, one-third were postmenopausal, and one-third were transitioning into menopause (perimenopausal).
Researchers looked particularly at how women’s brains metabolized glucose, the sugar that is the main source of energy for the brain’s cells. They found that the perimenopausal and postmenopausal women had significantly lower glucose metabolism than the premenopausal women. They also found that the brains of the peri- and postmenopausal women had signs of mitochondrial dysfunction. Those women scored lower in memory tests, too than premenopausal women.
Why exactly women’s brains become less efficient at metabolizing glucose and suffer cognitive decline is then the next question to answer. Researchers believe that declining estrogen levels after menopause may be responsible for the degradation in brain function that accompanies menopause. If that is found to be the case, then there might be an opportunity to treat women going through menopause to maintain healthy estrogen levels, thereby avoiding damage to brain functioning that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.