For women, this phase of life can be especially challenging mentally and emotionally thanks to perimenopause. After decades of menstrual cycles (and maybe a pregnancy, or a few) post-puberty, your hormones are shifting to prepare you for menopause. With this comes hormonal changes that can have a profound impact on your cognitive functioning and overall brain health.
During this transition, many women experience hormonal brain fog—i.e., clouded thoughts, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating—thanks to decreasing estrogen and progesterone levels leading up to menopause. This phenomenon can be downright discouraging, as it affects cognitive functioning in a palpable way. (For specific tips to reduce mental fogginess and promote mental clarity and performance during perimenopause, check out this article.)
According to neuroscientist, nutritionist, and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., the drop in estrogen levels, specifically, can do more than just increase the likelihood of brain fog. In this mindbodygreen podcast episode, she explains how reproductive hormones play a massive role in protecting our brains from the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other damage that contributes to neurodegenerative diseases.
“The interactions between the brain and the reproductive organs are really crucial for brain health and brain aging—especially in women. We tend to think of testosterone [and] estrogens as involved in reproduction, having kids. But in reality, these hormones have a lot of effects inside our brains,” Mosconi says.
These reproductive hormones push neurons to bring glucose and make energy—thus, if your hormone levels are high, your brain energy is high. “But then what happens to testosterone is that it doesn’t quite decline that much over time; whereas for women, estrogens pretty much plummet when women go through menopause,” she explains. “If you think of these hormones as having some kind of superpowers for the brain, women lose the superpower around the time that menopause hits, right? And the brain is left a little more vulnerable.”