For years, researchers have been trying to find out why women suffer more memory problems in their later years than men do. And now scientists in Germany say they’ve pinpointed the answer.
They blame menopause…
Researchers say that post-menopausal women are at higher risk of a build-up of white matter hyperintensities.
White matter hyperintensities are very small lesions in the brain that can be seen during brain scans. They accumulate in larger numbers as both women and men age, and research shows that these lesions are risk factors for a variety of brain issues – including cognitive decline, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“White matter hyperintensities increase as the brain ages, and while having them does not mean that a person will develop dementia or have a stroke, larger amounts may increase a person’s risk,” warns German researcher Monique M. B. Breteler, MD, PhD, who is with the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases.
Dr. Breteler says that her research shows that these hyperintensities develop differently in women than in men.
Women At Greater Risk for Brain Lesions
Alarmingly, the German investigations demonstrated that these hyperintensities accelerate with age in everyone, but they increase significantly faster in women.
Dr. Breteler and her colleagues examined 3,410 people with an average age of 54. MRI brain scans showed that the postmenopausal women’s brains contained more hyperintensities than men of a similar age. In people aged 45 and older, postmenopausal women had an average total white matter hyperintensities volume of 0.94 ml compared to 0.72 ml for men.1
Exactly why postmenopausal women experience this increase in hyperintensities has not been explained. And according to the German scientists, whether women have had hormone replacement therapy (HRT) does not seem to either positively or negatively affect the development of hyperintensities.
Lower Your Risk of Hyperintensities
Among the most important things you can do to lower your risk of suffering these brain issues is to keep your weight down. Research shows that folks who carry a lot of extra pounds around their waist also carry a greater burden of hyperintensities in their brains.
One reason obesity increases these brain lesions, according to a study conducted by scientists in the Netherlands and Germany, is the greater amount of inflammation that occurs in people who are overweight.2
And these researchers also point out that along with the rising number of hyperintensities, being overweight leads to other cognitive-threatening problems in the brain’s white matter – the part of the brain that helps coordinate communications among neurons in different brain regions.
Another way to lower your risk for accumulating many hyperintensities is to eat the Mediterranean diet.
This is a diet that emphasizes consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, soy, and lentils), fish and extra virgin olive oil. It limits the consumption of red meat, refined grains and sweets and includes only moderate amounts of alcohol.
A study performed by researchers at the University of Miami and Columbia University, which involved about a thousand people living in New York City, found that those whose diets resembled the Mediterranean diet most closely had the fewest hyperintensities.3 They believe that the relatively large amount of monounsaturated fat in the Mediterranean diet (this type of fat is predominant in olive oil) is an important factor in lowering the risk of brain lesions.
Other factors affecting the chances of developing hyperintensities include:
- High blood pressure. Many studies show that having uncontrolled hypertension leads to a greater accumulation of hyperintensities.4
- Deficiencies of vitamin D and folate. Many people do not get enough of either of these nutrients critical to the health of your heart, brain and your immune system. Supplements will help.5,6
While women can’t do anything to stop menopause, the new research reinforces what we’ve written about for years in this newsletter: Inflammation is dangerous to your memory.
Choosing to eat an anti-inflammatory diet, exercising regularly, sleeping well, and managing your stress can all go a long way to lowering the levels of inflammation that contribute to the development of hyperintensities that can lead to dementia. In other words, your lifestyle matters, so make smart choices.
The consensus of all of these studies once again demonstrates the benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle. That’s your best defense against a wide range of problems – and your best bet for keeping your brain functioning at its best.