Many women experience changes in memory as they get older, and according to a study conducted by BWH researchers, these changes are impacted by their menopausal status and not simply chronological age.
The study’s investigators found that women participating in the study who had lower levels of the sex hormone, estradiol – known to decline during the menopausal transition – performed more poorly on a verbal memory task than those who had higher levels regardless of age. Participants with lower estradiol levels also showed more changes in the brain circuitry that controls memory.
“Our findings underscore the incredible variability of the brain as we age and the critical importance and complexity of the impact of sex on aging, including the unique role of sex steroid hormones in memory function,” said senior author Jill Goldstein, PhD, director of Research at the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at BWH. “Maintaining intact memory function with age is one of the greatest public health challenges of our time, and applying 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.”
During the study, 200 male and female participants performed short- and long- term verbal memory tasks while lying in an MRI scanner to observe brain activity in memory circuitry regions. In addition, they collected blood to evaluate participants’ steroid hormone levels and women’s menopausal status, markers of immune function and genes.
“We set out to study cognitive aging from a women’s health perspective,” said lead author Emily Jacobs, PhD, formerly of the Division of Women’s Health and the Department of Psychiatry at BWH, and now of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “One of the most profound hormonal changes in a woman’s life is the transition to menopause. By shifting our focus to this early midlife period, we detected changes in memory circuitry that are evident decades before the age range traditionally targeted by cognitive neuroscience studies on aging.”