Science

Researchers link early menopause with dementia risk in later life

Lowered levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen could be a factor in the possible connection between early menopause and dementia, experts said.

Women who enter menopause before they turn 40 are more likely to develop dementia later in life than those who begin menopause a decade later, according to a new study.

Researchers suggest being aware of the increased risk can help women take steps to prevent dementia, such as exercising and not smoking or drinking, and work with doctors to assess their brain health as they age.

According to the experts, lowered levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen may be a factor in the possible connection between early menopause and dementia.

Wenting Hao, a PhD candidate at Shandong University in Jinan, China, said: “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 practise strategies to prevent dementia and to work with their physicians to closely monitor their cognitive status as they age.”

According to the study, women who entered menopause before the age of 40 were 35% more likely to have been diagnosed with dementia.

While those who went through the transition before the age of 45 were 1.3 times more likely to have been diagnosed with dementia before they were 65-years-old – also known as early-onset dementia.

The researchers also found that those who entered menopause at age 52 or older had similar rates of dementia to those women who entered menopause at average age of onset at 50 to 51 years.

Dementia involves serious changes in the brain that impair a person’s ability to remember, make decisions and use language.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, while the second most common is vascular dementia, which is the result of disruptions in blood flow to brain cells caused by strokes or plaque build-up in arteries supplying blood to the brain.

In the current study, researchers analysed health data for 153,291 women who were an average 60-years-old when they became participants in the UK Biobank study (between 2006 and 2010).

The UK Biobank is a large database that includes genetic and health information on half-a-million people living in the UK.

Researchers identified the diagnosis of all types of dementia and calculated how likely women were to develop the condition in terms of how old they were when they entered menopause.

The results were adjusted for factors including age at last exam, race, educational level, cigarette and alcohol use, body mass index, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, income and leisure and physical activities.

The researchers did not find an association between age at menopause and the risk of vascular dementia.

Ms Hao said: “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 say further research is needed to assess the added value of including the timing of menopause as a predictor in existing dementia models.

They highlight a number of limitations to the study, including that the authors relied on women’s self-reported information about their age at menopause onset, and that the data used for this study included mostly white women and may not generalise to other populations.

The preliminary research, presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle & Cardiometabolic Health Conference 2022, has not been peer-reviewed.

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