In Australia, up to one in 10 people over 65 are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Almost two-thirds of them are women – a discrepancy that researchers have long attributed to genetics and women’s longer life spans, among other reasons. But there is growing consensus that menopause may also be an important risk factor for the development of dementia later in life.
Women going through the life phase, which is clinically defined as the end of fertility, face as many changes in the brain as in the ovaries, says Dr Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist and director of the Women’s Brain Initiative at Weill Cornell Medicine. While the vast majority of women will weather these changes without long-term health consequences, about 20 per cent will develop dementia in the decades that follow.
The female brain is rich in estrogen receptors, particularly in regions that control memory, mood, sleep and body temperature, all of which “work beautifully when estrogen is high and consistent,” Mosconi says. Estrogen is also vital for the brain’s ability to defend itself against ageing and damage.