Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) could help keep a woman’s brain spry into her golden years. But it’s all dependent on the timing. This latest information comes from a recent study on monkeys.
Menopause can be a difficult time in a woman’s life, initiating many physical changes. Basically, between the ages of 45 and 55, your menstrual period comes to an end and your body produces increasingly smaller amounts of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. This can cause hot flashes, brittle bones, difficulty sleeping, and other symptoms. To relieve these symptoms, women can be given injections of estrogen or estrogen/progestin, known as HRT. HRT is not without its risks, including heart attack, stroke, and breast cancer.
Researchers did a study on female “rhesus macaques,” a type of monkey. They chose macaques for the study because their cycles of menstruation and menopause are close to those of humans. The monkeys were divided into groups based on age — older and younger. The researchers gave half of each group injections of estrogen. The other half of each group received no treatment. These were the control subjects.
After treatment, the animals were given short-term memory tests. Both groups of younger monkeys performed well on these tests. In the older animals, the macaques that had received the HRT showed mental acuity equal to the younger animals. The older monkeys not receiving any therapy seemed to have undergone a rapid decline in their mental abilities.
This means that lower estrogen has a link to cognitive problems. Plus, HRT could help prevent the “inevitable” loss of mental function that occurs with aging. The researchers believe that it could be because of some structures called “synaptic spines.” These act as little bridges between brain cells. The spines are extremely important in communication between cells. As we age, the number of these spines found in our brains decreases. But, in the HRT-treated monkeys in this study, there were more spines. So estrogen could have a role in preserving or producing these brain-boosting structures.
The researchers feel that timing is crucial when it comes to preserving healthy brain function. They think that HRT should be given during “perimenopause.” This is when the production of female sex hormones begins to slow down in a woman’s body. Perimenopause typically starts when you’re in your mid-40s. It can last for two to eight years, until you hit full menopause. Perimenopause is the time that you start to notice menstrual irregularities. You’ll also note other changes, like hot flashes. So, if a woman is already in her menopause years, the damage caused by the hormone changes might not be reversible. Therefore, HRT should be considered a potential prevention tool, not just a treatment for menopause symptoms.
If you’re a woman nearing menopause, explore the option of HRT with your doctor. Like any therapy, it has its up and downs. But slowing down the aging process in your brain is at least worth serious consideration.