This Morning: Early menopause sufferer explains symptoms
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According to Doctor Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy, “oestrogen is protective for brain cells, and at menopause, when oestrogen levels decline precipitously, this protection is lost, which can compromise brain function and leave the brain susceptible to damage”.
Oestrogen regulates the movement of signals through the brain called neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. It can also encourage the production of antioxidants which protect the brain from damage and disease.
While the increased risk of Alzheimer’s because of menopause is scary, “the vast majority” of women will not have the condition, said Doctor Lee.
In fact, women are likely to confuse Alzheimer’s disease with typical menopausal “brain fog” rather than brain damage due to Alzheimer’s.
It turns out that roughly sixty percent of women experience “brain fog” during menopause, according to a 2011 study.
Despite this, the doctor suggested “it is important to keep an open mind”, as the onset of dementia because of menopause isn’t unheard of.
She said: “In a typical menopause consultation, women very commonly have mild memory problems or ‘brain fog’.
“However, if their poor mental function was especially troublesome or concerning, I would assess cognition more formally.”
The difference between menopausal memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is caused by abnormal and damaging proteins in the brain – known as beta-amyloid and tau protein, which oestrogen can defend against.
On the other hand, menopausal memory loss or “brain fog” is due to a “combination of factors” directly related to a drop in oestrogen, which can be treated with HRT – hormonal replacement therapy, explained Doctor Lee.
Hot flushes, for example – a typical menopause symptom – affects the rate of blood flow to the temporal lobe changes, which is linked to less logical thinking, suggested Doctor Lee.
Sleeping problems due to the menopause can also affect the processing of memories.
That’s because frequent night-time awakenings reduce the amount of deep sleep, a period during sleep when memories are processed, and depression is also linked to poor mental functioning.
HRT may be offered to women to improve mental function during menopause – especially if they are diagnosed with depression alongside menopause.
Can HRT prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
Since Alzheimer’s can be affected by lower oestrogen levels, you might assume HRT could work to replace oestrogen and restore its protective function.
However, Doctor Lee explained that “research has not so far produced the answers”.
She cited other professionals and explained that there may only be a small “window of opportunity” to take HRT before it becomes too late to treat Alzheimer’s disease with HRT.
“If HRT is started too late, the beta-amyloid has already been deposited and it may be too late for oestrogen to make a difference,” the doc said.
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