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Memory complaints linked to changes in brain structure in postmenopausal women

Jul. 30, 2020, 8:01 AM


by Kelsey Herbers

Memory complaints in younger postmenopausal women are associated with differences in brain structure and may serve as an early marker for risk of future cognitive decline, according to a study published June 22 in Menopause by Vanderbilt University Medical Center researchers.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the University of Vermont, looked at the impact of self-reported memory and attention complaints on brain structure in women ages 50-60 who were in the early years after menopause.

Women who had more concerns about their memory had reduced brain volume in their right medial temporal lobe, which includes the hippocampus and other structures important for the formation of memories and other cognitive functions. This difference in brain volume varies across aging adults but is accelerated in individuals who develop mild cognitive impairment, putting them at risk for a more serious form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Because estrogen has been shown to be involved in a number of neuroprotective roles, the decline in estrogen levels that occurs through menopause is believed to be a significant factor behind older women being at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to men.

Paul Newhouse, MD

The results of this study suggest that while menopause may not directly cause memory complaints, it may act as an accelerator for further cognitive decline in women who are at higher risk for late-life cognitive impairments.

“These results are important for women’s health and contribute to our understanding of why some women are at increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to men. This information may help us to develop personalized prevention and treatment strategies to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in middle-aged and older women,” said Paul Newhouse, MD, Jim Turner Professor of Cognitive Disorders, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine and corresponding author for the study.

The study also found that memory complaints were not associated with a woman’s performance on memory tasks or other objective tests. This highlights the importance of considering self-reported memory complaints in addition to cognitive performance, as memory complaints may occur at an early stage of illness before any performance deficits on cognitive tasks and could serve as an early indicator of the risk for future cognitive decline in postmenopausal women.

“These results emphasize the significance of recognizing self-reported changes in memory and cognition in women following menopause, as they are associated with structural differences in the brain. Future research in our lab will see whether these changes are important in the development of Alzheimer’s disease in older women,” said Alexander Conley, PhD, a researcher at the Vanderbilt Center for Cognitive Medicine and the study’s first author.

Further studies are needed to determine whether increasing levels of memory complaints early in the postmenopausal period are associated with accelerated cognitive decline.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (grants AG021476, TR000445 and OD021771).

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