UW–Madison study breaks new ground on how menopause affects brain health

By Laurel White

Some health challenges faced by women who go through menopause earlier in life may be because of changes to blood flow in the brain, according to a new UW–Madison study. 

The study, published in the American Journal of Physiology–Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, found that women who went through menopause in their mid-40s had less responsive blood flow in the brain and more brain lesions associated with cognitive decline than women who went through menopause in their mid-50s.

Previous studies have shown links between earlier-onset menopause and increased risk of stroke, dementia, and cardiovascular disease. However, authors of this study believe it is the first ever to shed light on the root cause of some of those health challenges — particularly those related to brain health. 

Erin Moir, a postdoctoral fellow in the UW–Madison School of Education’s Department of Kinesiology, is the lead author of the study. She says the data outlined in the paper seem to be the first to demonstrate that the age a woman goes through menopause, and the time since menopause, impact cerebrovascular function and white matter structure in the brain. She says the finding could be an important step toward mitigating some health challenges experienced by women. 


“Increasing our understanding of how aging affects blood flow in the brain is critical to improving brain health in older adults,” Moir says. “For women, it’s very important to understand the changes to cerebrovascular function and brain health that come with menopause.” 

The study involved 35 healthy women who were divided into groups based on their age at onset of natural menopause. Researchers evaluated how well each woman’s brain reacted to carbon dioxide exposure by measuring the speed of blood flow in their brain using doppler technology, arterial blood pressure, and carbon dioxide levels in exhales of breath after exposure. They also evaluated MRI images of the brain to count white matter hyperintensities (WMH), a type of lesion that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

Women who experienced menopause earlier in life showed less responsive brain blood flow and higher blood pressure. They also had more WMH lesions. These changes in function and structure in the body offer key insights into how exactly menopause changes the body, and why certain health conditions are more common for women after they go through menopause.

According to the National Institutes of Health, menopause most often begins between the ages of 45 and 55. Previous studies have shown a number of genetic, reproductive, and lifestyle factors influence the age at which a woman goes through menopause. The authors of this study note that further study of lifestyle factors that have shown to lead to earlier-onset menopause, such as tobacco use, could be beneficial to promoting better health for women later in life. 

Other lead authors on the study were Adam Corkery, a current doctoral student in the Department of Kinesiology, and Katherine Senese, who recently graduated from UW–Madison. Jill Barnes, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology, was senior author and principal investigator of the study. Barnes’ lab focuses on the effect of aging on blood flow regulation in humans and how that relates to the risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia.

The study is available online here

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