This article is adapted from Lisa Mosconi's, PhD research on women's brains, her TedTalk, and her book, The XX Brain.
Women's brains differ from men's brains, and these differences impact women's health. For example, women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and headaches and migraines. Women are also more likely than men to have Alzheimer's disease; in fact, two-thirds of all Alzheimer patients are women.
Women and men's brains age differently, and menopause plays a key role. Our brains are in constant communication with the rest of our body, including our reproductive system. Hormones are used to communicate with our bodies, but men and women have different hormones. Men have more testosterone and women have more estrogen. These hormones differ in their longevity. Men's testosterone decreases very gradually as they age, which is pretty much a symptom-free process. Women's estrogen starts to decrease much more abruptly in midlife, during menopause, and often leads to symptoms. We often associate menopause with the ovaries, but when women experience hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, memory lapse, depression or anxiety - these symptoms don't start in the ovaries - they start in the brain. These are neurological symptoms, but we often don't think of them as such.
Why are our brains impacted by menopause?
Our brains and ovaries are part of a system called the neuro-endocrine system. This means that the brain and ovaries are in constant communication with each other. So the health of the ovaries is linked to the health of the brain, and vice versa. Hormones, like estrogen, are not only involved in reproduction but also in brain function. Estrogen, also known as estradiol, is key for energy production in the brain. At the cellular level, estrogen pushes neurons to burn glucose to make energy. As your estrogen declines (during menopause) your neurons also start to slow down and age faster.
These effects are stronger in certain parts of the brain, like the hypothalamus, which is in charge of regulating body temperature. When estrogen doesn't activate the hypothalamus correctly, the brain cannot regulate body temperature correctly, leading to hot flashes. The brain stem is in charge of sleep. When estrogen doesn't activate the brain stem correctly we have trouble sleeping. Then there's the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain, which is next to the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. As estrogen ebbs in these regions, we might experience mood swings and start to forget things. On average, women's brain energy declines about 30% from before the menopausal transition to post-menopause. And age does not seem to impact this - it doesn't matter if a woman is in her 40s, 50s, or 60s. What mattered most is that she was going through the menopausal transition.
So if this is you, and you are feeling different from your "normal" self - don't worry - you're not crazy! This is our brain going through a transition, and it needs time and support to adjust. This is our body's natural aging process.