Menopause is a major milestone in a woman’s lifetime. No more monthly menstrual cycles, no more concerns about unplanned pregnancies, and no more fluctuations of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. You would think menopause is all about shutting down a woman’s reproductive capabilities, and nothing more.
But menopause is more than that. This change of life not only stops the ovaries from releasing a monthly egg having the potential of being fertilized, it also changes a woman’s brain. That’s because the female hormones of estrogen and progesterone also regulate how the brain functions.
Menopause is not just a biological process of ensuring a woman is incapable of getting pregnant. It’s also a neurological process as well. A woman’s brain not only tells the ovaries when to release an egg, it also governs many of the symptoms of menopause – hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety, depression, forgetfulness, and insomnia. This shutting down of a woman’s reproductive life significantly impacts her brain to react in these expected yet also unexplainable symptoms that accompany this phase of a woman’s life. It is theorized that the hormonal changes during the transition along with the resulting brain changes is what triggers these symptoms.
The average age of women going through the transition of menopause is around age 51. A woman is considered to have gone through menopause (postmenopausal) when she has had no menstrual cycle for an entire year.
The phase between perimenopause and menopause can last anywhere from four to 10 years usually begins several years before the final transition of menopause. During this time, estrogen levels ebb and flow until they eventually plummet. Many women will experience fluctuations of irregular periods along with the usual symptoms noted above in addition with mood swings, trouble concentrating and changes in sexual arousal.
A 2021 study published in the journal Scientific Reports took an in-depth look of 160 healthy women between the ages of 40 and 65. The researchers wanted to observe the different stages of the transition of menopause using MRIs and PET scans to note brain changes that occurred. The goal was to get a view of what happens to the brain throughout the changes of menopause both before it began and after it was over. The study also viewed images of the brains of men in this same age range for comparison between the sexes.
The results of this study found that menopause does indeed cause changes in the brain. In fact, researchers found that women’s brains change quite a bit when compared to men’s brains. Menopause was found to change the brain’s structure, energy consumption, and connectivity. Even the volume of gray matter in the brain, decreased along with the white matter, which contains the fibers that connect nerve cells. It also found that in women, the regions of the brain associated with memory and perception also showed declining glucose levels.
The good news however, is it appears that women’s brains adapt to this new normal. The study found that women’s brains were able to at least partly compensate for these declines with increase blood flow and production of a molecule called ATP, the main energy source for cells. Follow-up scans two years post-menopause found that brain changes are often transient, and in some parts of the brain reverse within a few years.
One caveat of the study findings was that women with a genetic variant associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease had more plaques of a protein called amyloid beta, linked to Alzheimer’s disease, during perimenopause than women and men without the genetic variant. Estrogen protects the female brain from aging and stimulated neural activity. This helps to prevent the buildup of clusters of proteins or plaques, linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Menopause may be inevitable along with the symptoms associated with it, but women can take steps keeping their brain healthy and fit. Here are some suggestions promoting brain health for women:
Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy. Dr. Samadi is a medical contributor to NewsMax TV and is also the author of The Ultimate MANual, Dr. Samadi’s Guide to Men’s Health and Wellness, available online both on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncolo gy and prostate cancer 911.