September 19, 2021 — 11:03 AM
Every 65 seconds, a new brain develops Alzheimer’s, and more than 5 million Americans are already living with the disease. Even more staggering? Women account for almost two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s cases. Why women develop Alzheimer’s at higher rates than men is not fully understood, but hormonal health likely has something to do with it.
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Hormonal health is crucial for brain health, at all ages—for both men and women—but women go through reproductive stages in their lives that impact their brains in unique ways. I call these critical life stages the three P’s: puberty, pregnancy, and perimenopause.
Here’s what we know about the changes in the brain during each of these stages, and how women can best protect their cognitive health for life.
What happens to the brain during puberty?
During puberty, hormones are programmed to regulate certain functions in your body and brain. Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that the hormonal changes that occur during puberty can increase the risk for the onset and persistence of depressive symptoms in females.
Research also shows that depression and anxiety may be linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, so reducing the incidence of depression through early diagnosis and treatment is valuable for a woman’s life on every level.
How to protect the brain during puberty.
More than anything, it’s critical for a girl going through puberty to be afforded the physical and social conditions she needs to optimize her brain health—and that includes things like having access to proper nutrition, exercise, and a safe and stable environment.
Environmental toxins are bad for the brain at any time in life, so reducing exposure to them is critical—be it air pollution, ingested toxins, and products that may interfere with estrogen production, like certain makeups and plastics. Choosing stainless steel or glass products over plastics can help, drinking filtered water, and avoiding foods that have pesticides residue or a lot of artificial ingredients. Also of primary importance is making sure they’re getting enough sleep during puberty, as sleep is crucial for memory consolidation and learning, stress reduction, and immune system support. Exercise is also essential, as is staying away from drugs and alcohol. The brain is drastically changing during puberty, and it’s important not to compromise it through exposure to unhealthy elements.
What happens to the brain during pregnancy?
When women become pregnant, their entire bodies, brain included, will experience a huge surge in hormones, followed by a big drop after the baby is born. Many women experience “pregnancy brain,” which consists of lower cognitive functioning, memory, and executive functioning, according to a meta-analysis on pregnancy and changes in cognition.
In some ways, pregnancy resembles puberty as the brain is exposed to a large influx of hormones that in this case, prepare you for giving birth, while at the same time impacting brain function, too. We now have some evidence that for some women, the estrogen “baths” a woman’s brain experiences during pregnancy may actually protect her from developing Alzheimer’s down the road. Research also indicates that gestational diabetes might be red flags for developing type 2 diabetes in midlife, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
How to protect the brain during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, women need to ensure they are getting enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food. I recommend the Mediterranean diet, filled with vitamins and minerals, healthy fats like olive oil and fish, lean protein, and green leafy vegetables for fiber. I also advise avoiding processed foods, refined sugar, and too much salt—these foods can lead to unhealthy weight gain, fatigue, and even a higher chance of developing high blood pressure or gestational diabetes.
It’s also important for women to be gentle with themselves during this tumultuous time. There are so many overwhelming changes that happen in the brain and body, in addition to what’s going on around them. Life is going to change dramatically with a baby coming. It’s a source of joy, but also a lot of work!
What happens to the brain during perimenopause?
Women’s brains in midlife seem to be more sensitive to hormonal aging than just chronological aging. Both body and brain experience a change in estrogen production, which in turn triggers myriad modifications to brain structure, brain-region connectivity, and brain energy consumption. Notably, many women going through perimenopause experience a drop in brain energy levels, which in the immediate term manifest themselves as hot flashes and fatigue, and in the long term might make a woman’s brain more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s.
How to protect the brain during perimenopause.
The Mediterranean diet has also been recommended for perimenopause, as the nutritious meal plan has been proven to be best for brain health as women age. Women should also keep alcohol to a minimum, avoid smoking, get as much sleep as they can, and reduce stress—as all these factors are known to sink your estrogen. Research shows aerobic exercise can also help improve cognition.
Men and women appear to develop Alzheimer’s for different reasons: Men’s brains seem to be more sensitive to cardiovascular risk factors, and women’s brains to hormonal and metabolic risk factors. (To find out more about the differences, listen to my episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.)
Filling the gap between women’s health, neurology, and psychiatry is vital, so that women can receive the best and most appropriate preventative care for their brain health during every phase of life.