Currently, between four and five million Americans suffer from dementia, an umbrella term that describes the symptoms of memory loss and mental decline caused by Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and other health conditions. But promising research specific to how dementia manifests in Alzheimer’s disease is underway.
Relationship Between Dementia and Menopause
Roberta Diaz Brinton, director at the Center for Innovation in Brain Science at the University of Arizona, and 2015 “Scientist of the Year” awardee by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, studies the role of menopause in causing dementia and how lipids are metabolized to fuel the aging brain. Significantly, two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s patients are women.
Diaz Brinton’s work indicates that menopause may play a key role because the brain fuels itself from available lipids—fats—it takes from the liver. Declining estrogen levels in women, a common side effect during and after menopause, may interfere with lipids reaching the brain, Diaz Brinton says.
All post-menopausal women then mimic what happens among people who are starving: deprived of lipids, their brains burn what are called ketone bodies instead, feeding off the body to protect precious brain matter. This “backup generator” process works for many, but not all, aging women. When the brain cannot find enough ketone bodies to utilize as fuel, it can turn on its own white brain matter for energy, which may then result in dementia, according to Diaz Brinton.
Each year, the Alzheimer’s Association invests in new research on dementia. Since 1982, the organization has invested $435 million in more than 2,900 scientific investigations and clinical trials worldwide. This year, the organization helped fund several important studies on dementia, including research into:
- The relationships between brain inflammation and Alzheimer’s
- Diagnosis, assessment, and disease monitoring
- Novel treatment strategies and non-drug interventions
- Improved care for dementia through new technologies
- Population- and environment-based factors contributing to dementias, including genetic risk factors
Only 1 percent of Alzheimer’s patients are pre-determined through family history to develop this disease. For the remaining 99 percent of women and men, these researchers believe that genetic inheritance, while clearly influential, is not necessarily destiny. A constellation of factors, including lifestyle choices such as sleep, diet, alcohol consumption, and exercise made after age 50 may help determine when, or even if, a person eventually develops Alzheimer’s disease.