Individual experiences over the past year of pandemic life have widely varied. Some people’s pace of life has drastically slowed down, helping to reveal a more authentic self while others have been overwhelmed with stress as caregivers, frontline workers, or members of vulnerable populations. It is often women who have carried a heavier load, making them more susceptible to burnout and serious health problems including Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other brain health problems.
According to a recent article in Prevention magazine, chronic stress and hormone changes women experience around the average age of menopause (51) contribute to a risk for certain types of brain tumors, depression, and autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis that affect the brain.
Although women live slightly longer than men, nearly two-thirds of people diagnosed with AD are women. By the age of 65, and in 2050, it is estimated that as many as 9 million women will have Alzheimer’s disease and African American women are two to three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to develop AD.
The Good News
Although the statistics about aging women’s brain health are daunting, as researchers learn more about the connection between how gender differences affect brain diseases, more can be done to help keep women’s brain cells healthy and active. In women, estrogen provides a neuroprotective effect but as this hormone decline in perimenopause and menopause, many women experience memory problems, brain fog, and a greater risk for developing amyloid plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s.
Chronic stress also has a profound effect on women’s brain health. Recent research has found that chronic stress leads to memory problems and brain shrinkage that is more severe in women in their 40s and 50s than men of the same age. Chronic stress keeps cortisol levels high and when the body is in a prolonged fight or flight response, the region of the brain associated with memory, the hippocampus, can be impaired.
Women in their 40s and 50s are frequently sandwiched between demanding careers, raising children, and aging parents. Throw in a global pandemic where everyone is trying to work, learn and stay safe at home, and a great many middle-aged women are at their breaking point. But there are steps that women can take to help protect their long-term brain health and boost neuroplasticity, making the brain more resilient.
Brain Health Steps for Women
- Talk with your doctor to determine if hormone replacement therapy may have a benefit if you are perimenopausal.
- Eat a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts, beans, and whole grains. Phytoestrogens in plant-based food may have a mild estrogen-like effect on the body.
- Eat lots of fiber-rich foods like carrots, red beets, parsnips, or scallions to stabilize blood sugar and provide the brain with the glucose it needs.
- Exercise regularly to support brain health and reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Even short bouts of movement can boost heart rate and increase blood flow to the brain.
- Maintain good sleep hygiene to promote proper rest, allowing the brain to repair and recover.
- Try to lighten your cognitive load by removing some of the unnecessary tasks when they add to stress levels. Maybe an hour of yoga or reading is more important than a spotless kitchen.
- Try to find ways to unwind, spending time in nature, meditating, listening to music, or journaling. Carving out time to enjoy activities that help turn down the noise will benefit both your physical and mental health.
Cheers to a self-care Sunday!