What You Should Know About Women’s Brains
"Taking care of our brains today is going to make a huge difference in the future."
The historical conception that male brains are superior to female brains is finally being overturned—but while there is no difference in our intelligence, there are subtle structural differences in female brains that can heighten the risk of health conditions for women, including Alzheimer’s disease, migraines, and depression. Few people are aware of this, so raising awareness and helping people to feel more comfortable seeking assistance with these types of health concerns is incredibly important.
An international researcher in Alzheimer’s prevention, author of the incredible book Brain Food, and a nutrition expert and neuroscientist, today’s guest Lisa Mosconi has years of invaluable nutrition and neuroscience knowledge from a career spent working to prevent brain deterioration.
You can check out my previous episode with Lisa here: Episode 88: Eating For Your Brain with Dr. Lisa Mosconi
In this episode, we’ll explain the differences between female and male brains, including differences in hormones and health risks. We’ll explain some ways you can become more aware of women’s brain health, and explain what a typical brain scan might look like for a woman experiencing a decline in brain health. Finally, we’ll tell you why you should take care of yourself in the busiest decades of your life, and why you (or the women in your life) should never be ashamed of seeking out health treatment.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN FEMALE & MALE BRAINS
- For many years there was a conception that men’s brains were superior to women’s brains, despite there being many brilliant women (and men have had access to higher education much longer than women!)
- When looking at brain scans of female and male brains, there is no way to tell the brains apart
- The differences between male and female brains are more subtle but real: there are differences in the way our brains are wired. Women’s brains tend to be more connected than men’s brains, and different quantities of chemicals/neurotransmitters travel into each brain.
- Men’s brains tend to have more serotonin (the feel-good hormone), and women’s brains tend to have more dopamine (reward-oriented neurotransmitter).
- Science has found real differences in the way our brain’s age. Women’s brains age differently, we develop and mature differently, and the medical risks are different.
- Women have an increased risk of many conditions that affect brain health. As compared to men, women have:
—2x the risk of anxiety, depression
—3x the risk of autoimmune disorders that attack the brain, like MS
—4x the risk of headaches and migraines
—Increased risk of brain tumors
—Increased risk of dying from a stroke
- Many women are not aware that Alzheimer’s attacks women’s brains more than men: of every 3 Alzheimer’s patients, 2 are women. This fact has been disregarded for decades by saying “women live longer than men.”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
- Recognize there are medical risks women need to be aware of and address
- Understand when the risk becomes something you need to address
- How do we do that?
- Check out the Women’s Brain Initiative at Cornell
- Lisa asked: of all the factors that can cause Alzheimer’s, which risk factors are really important to address and when? Started to look into that using brain scans.
MORE ABOUT ALZHEIMER’S
- Alzheimer’s disease is not a disease of old age—we tend to associate it with the elderly because that is when the symptoms tend to manifest (usually around age 70 in the US), but in reality, it starts with negative changes in the brain decades prior.
- For most people, the Alzheimer’s process starts in midlife (anywhere between 40-60).
- The problem is not that women live longer, it’s that women tend to develop Alzheimer’s earlier, and specifically in menopause (usually around 51 in the US).
- Same woman’s brain shown in all scans.
- 1st scan: the colors measure brain activity. Red is the most active your brain can be, yellow is good too, green is okay, and blue shows fluid.
- 2nd scan: a scan from the perimenopause phase—the red has turned to yellow, yellow turned to green, and the scan became darker overall. This corresponded with a 50% drop in energy levels, which is not normal, and this all happened within a space of just 6 years.
- After having hundreds of people in the studies, it turned out that this is an average experience, not an extreme case.
WHAT THE SCAN RESULTS MEAN
- When women do experience this drop in energy levels, it is when Alzheimer’s plaques start to accumulate and become measurable, and the brain loses brain activity.
- The drop in energy levels correlates with altered hormonal levels and the symptoms of menopause: hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, brain fog, anxiety, depression, cognitive slippage, memory lapses. These symptoms start inside your brain, not your ovaries.
- We think of estrogen and progesterone as important for fertility and reproductive functions, but only because this was the first function we discovered as scientists.
- It wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists found that these hormones have functions inside the brain too, including boosting your immunity, growth, plasticity inside your brain. They also activate your brain and trigger glucose metabolism which helps your brain to burn glucose to make energy.
- If hormone levels decline, the brain areas that are dependent on them shut down.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
- Preventative medicine is essential, and brain scans should be included in preventative care.
- Women need medical attention in their 40 & the 50s.
- Know that if your reproductive lifespan is short, your risk of Alzheimer’s is high.
- Some people go through menopause naturally in their 50s, but some women plunge into menopause early e.g. if they have their ovaries removed, which comes with a 70% higher risk of Alzheimer’s than women who do not have a hysterectomy.
- Usually, nobody (including doctors and surgeons) tells you your brain might experience a change as a result of having this surgery.
- Increase awareness of these changes where you can—there is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. Women going through perimenopause can feel like they’re going crazy, especially if they have no-one to talk to, and due to our culture of suppressing symptoms.
ASK FOR SOLUTIONS
- Try to feel comfortable talking about it and asking for solutions—we don’t have enough solutions currently.
- Consider that if men were having hot flushes, this would have been solved centuries ago. As it stands, women go to their doctor and get a prescription for antidepressants which doesn’t solve the root problems.
- Have compassion for yourself, be aware that the stress that comes with not being able to think straight can make the problem even worse as it decreases your sex hormone levels even further.
- Women in their stressful decades juggling careers, kids, parents (30s, 40s, 50s) really needs to take care of themselves—but commonly say we don’t have enough time.
- Taking care of our brains today is going to make a huge difference in the future.
SHARE WITH US
- Take a screenshot of this episode, tag us on social media (@jimkwik & @dr_mosconi ) and share your greatest “aha!” moment from this episode with us!
- Find Lisa’s book Brain Food here!
*Please note, this episode is educational only and is not intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions. Please consult your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns.*
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