As explained by neuroscientist, nutritionist, and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., in a mindbodygreen podcast episode, reproductive hormones play a massive role in protecting our brains from damage (such as the amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease).
“The interactions between the brain and the reproductive organs are really crucial for brain health and brain aging—especially in women,” she says. “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.”
“In particular, they literally push our neurons to bring glucose to make energy. So if your hormones 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,” Mosconi shares.
It’s this plummet in estrogen that leaves women’s brains especially vulnerable when they hit menopause in their 40s or 50s. “If you think of these hormones as having some kind of superpowers for the brain, women lose the super power around the time that menopause hits, right? And the brain is left a little more vulnerable,” Mosconi says.
Like menopause, having your uterus or ovaries removed (i.e., a hysterectomy or oophorectomy) also results in a drastic drop in estrogen levels. Other periods of hormonal fluctuations—such as puberty and pregnancy—influence estrogen levels as well, which explains why some hormonal health factors leave women at higher risk while others help protect their brains.