Maintaining brain health is key to joining these lucky people living a long, happy and healthy life. But for many women, it’s the slow creep of dementia that leads to the demise of their health, and quality of life.
Two thirds of people living with dementia are women, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms it is now the leading cause of death for women.
Yet there are few studies of how dementia progresses in women.
Two recent studies from the landmark 20-year Women’s Healthy Ageing Project at the University of Melbourne shed light on which women are most at risk of developing dementia, and how we can get in early to prevent or delay the disease.
Their results are timely, coming as the Australian Government considers the best ways to look after women’s health in the future, inviting submissions to its National Women’s Health Strategy for 2020 – 2030.
In research published in Brain Imaging and Behaviour, researchers found that a woman’s volume of grey matter in their brain at the age of 60 predicts their memory performance at 70.
Grey matter is the part of the brain that is controlled by the nerve cell bodies and it’s where the real processing happens, including speech, hearing, feelings, seeing and memory. White matter allows communication to and from grey matter areas, as well as between grey matter and other parts of the body.
In separate study published in the same journal, they also found that women with normal levels of the ‘good’ cholesterol, called HDL which carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to your liver, in 1992 had less white matter damage in their brain a decade later when they conducted late-life brain MRI scans and cognitive assessments in 2012.
So, maintaining healthy levels of cholesterol impacts on the structure of the brain directly.
“Taken together, these findings show there are useful neuroimaging biomarkers for the prediction of cognitive decline in healthy older women,” says lead researcher Professor Cassandra Szoeke.
“They build on a growing body of research helping us pick up the warning signs of dementia earlier. In fact just this year the National Institute of Ageing published proposed criteria to diagnose dementia and pre-dementia on biomarkers, like brain scan results and body fluid measures of protein levels.”
What’s happening in our brains