The study, published yesterday in Neurology, considered a group of men and women who had similar scores on cognitive tests and similar health indicators, including blood pressure readings and family histories of Alzheimer’s.
The researchers found that women tended to fare worse on all four measures of brain health that they tested: the amount of gray and white matter, amyloid-beta plaque levels (which are a marker for Alzheimer’s), and how quickly the brain metabolizes glucose.
They found that women had an average of 30% more amyloid-beta plaques and that their brains metabolized glucose at 22% lower rates. Volumes of gray and white matter in the brain were both approximately 11% lower in women. Losses in gray and white matter volumes has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease in previous research.
Participants in the study had an average age of 52, and had no cognitive impairments. Though the study was on the smaller size (85 women and 36 men participated), these consistently worse scores for the female participants contextualizes women’s higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
“Our findings suggest that middle-aged women may be more at risk for the disease, perhaps because of lower levels of the hormone estrogen during and after menopause,” Mosconi says. “While all sex hormones are likely involved, our findings suggest that declines in estrogen are involved in the Alzheimer’s biomarker abnormalities in women we observed.”
She noted that of all the markers for brain health, “The pattern of gray matter loss, in particular, shows anatomical overlap with the brain estrogen network.”