Women who have gone through menopause may have more of a brain biomarker called white matter hyperintensities than premenopausal women or men of the same age, according to a new study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
White matter hyperintensities are tiny lesions visible on brain scans that become more common with age or with uncontrolled high blood pressure. These brain biomarkers have been linked in some studies to an increased risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.
The study involved 3,410 people with an average age of 54. Of those, 58 percent were women, and of the women, 59 percent were postmenopausal. Also, 35 percent of all participants had high blood pressure and of those, half had uncontrolled high blood pressure.
All participants had MRI brain scans. Researchers looked at the scans and calculated the amount of white matter hyperintensities for each participant. The average total volume for these brain biomarkers was 0.5 milliliters (ml). The average total brain volume was 1,180 ml for men and 1,053 ml for women. The average total white matter volume, the area of the brain where white matter hyperintensities can be found, was 490 ml for men and 430 ml for women.
After adjusting for age and vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, researchers found that postmenopausal women had more of these brain biomarkers when compared to men of similar age. In people 45 and older, postmenopausal women had an average total white matter hyperintensities volume of 0.94 ml compared to 0.72 ml for men. Researchers also found that the increase in brain biomarkers accelerated with age and at a faster rate in women than in men.
Researchers also found that postmenopausal women had more white matter hyperintensities than premenopausal women of similar age. In a group of participants aging 45 to 59, postmenopausal women had an average total volume of white matter hyperintensities of 0.51 ml compared to 0.33 ml for premenopausal women.
A limitation of the study was that researchers did not know the exact age of menopause onset or whether some participants were perimenopausal.