Prior research has found that estrogen may play a role in the development of dementia, with one study finding that cumulative estrogen exposure may be protective against the disease. Now, a new study may provide further evidence for this link, as it appears as though women who go through menopause early have a heightened risk of dementia.
According to information presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference – held in early March 2022 – women who enter menopause before age 40 are more likely to develop dementia throughout their lifetimes than women who begin it at the average age of 50 to 51. Researchers say while the findings may be concerning for women with earlier menopause, they can help them know their risk and work to reduce it.
Dr. Wenting Hao, Ph.D. candidate at Shandong University in China, explains, “Our study found that women who enter menopause very early were at greater risk of developing dementia later in life. Being aware of this increased risk can help women practice strategies to prevent dementia and to work with their physicians to closely monitor their cognitive status as they age.”
To conduct their study, the team examined data from more than 153,000 women in the UK Biobank database, which includes the health information of half a million United Kingdom residents. For the sample used for this study, the average age at the time of enrollment in the UK Biobank was 60, with each having joined between 2006 and 2010.
Researchers looked at diagnoses of Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, and dementias from other causes. They then noted each participant’s age at menopause onset and where it fell in relation to the average age of 50 to 51. The figures were adjusted for factors including race, educational level, cigarette and alcohol use, and existing health issues.
The team found that women who began menopause before the age of 40 were 35% more likely to have been diagnosed with dementia than women who entered menopause at an average age. Meanwhile, the risk of developing dementia before the age of 65 was 1.3 times higher for those who hit menopause before they were 45. There was not a larger risk for women who entered it later, however.
Researchers believe that lower estrogen levels may play a role in these findings.
Dr. Hao explains, “We know that the lack of estrogen over the long term enhances oxidative stress, which may increase brain aging and lead to cognitive impairment.”
If you’re in this higher risk group, though, there are some steps you may be able to take to be proactive about your health.
Dr. Hao says, “Dementia can be prevented, and there are a number of ways women who experience early menopause may be able to reduce their risk of dementia. This includes routine exercise, participation in leisure and educational activities, not smoking and not drinking alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough vitamin D and, if recommended by their physician, possibly taking calcium supplements.”
The researchers noted there were some limitations of the study, including that differences in dementia rates between women who had naturally occurring menopause and those who had surgically-induced menopause were not analyzed. They say that could have impacted the findings.