Memory Changes May Occur in Aging Women Decades Earlier Than Previously Thought

Memory Changes May Occur in Aging Women Decades Earlier Than Previously Thought

Women often experience forgetfulness and changes in memory as they enter menopause, but studies that focus on subjects who are 65 and above tend to ignore the cognitive changes that may occur much earlier in a woman’s life.

The Study

A Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) study of women between the ages of 45 and 55 has revealed that reproductive stage and not just chronological stage, may add to changes in brain function.

Emily Jacobs, lead author and former member of the Division of Women’s Health and the Department of Psychiatry at BWH, and her team of investigators set out to study cognitive aging from a women’s health perspective. Jacobs notes that one of the most significant hormonal changes in a woman’s life is the change to menopause.

“Aging isn’t a process that suddenly begins at 65. Subtle neural and cognitive changes happen earlier. Considering a person’s sex and reproductive status — above and beyond numerical age — is critical for detecting those changes,” said Jacobs.

Researchers studied 200 men and women, using an MRI to observe changes in the brain’s memory circuitry. The participants were part of a task that tested their verbal memory by showing them  two words on a screen. Then they were asked to create a sentence using those words and were eventually tested on their memory of them.

Overall, the research team found that when estradiol (a sex steroid hormone that declines during menopause) levels were lower, more significant changes in the hippocampus (a primary region in the brain involved in memory and learning) were noticed. Participants with lower levels of estradiol performed poorly on the memory test.

The researchers also tested high-performing postmenopausal women and found that they showed brain activity patterns that were similar to those of premenopausal women.

What This Means

According to Jill Goldstein, director of research at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at BWH and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, keeping intact memory function with age is one of the largest public health hurdles of our time.

“[A]pplying a sex-dependent lens to the study of memory circuitry aging will help identify early antecedents of future memory decline and risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” she concluded.