Updated: Sep 25, 2019
When you think “Brain Health,” do you think “Women’s Health”? Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD and Director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College believes it's imperative that you do.
Dr. Mosconi has studied women’s neurology since the age of 19, after both her grandmother and sisters developed Alzheimer’s Disease. Her groundbreaking research as Director of the Women's Brain Initiative explores the deep connection between hormones, menopause, Alzheimer’s and brain health, and places her at the forefront of this very important topic. We had the privilege of hosting her at an intimate Elektra Salon earlier this month and learning what Dr. Mosconi believes every woman should know about her hormones & brain health.
Early studies reinforce the strong connection between hormones and brain health.
To put it simply: hormones regulate all processes in the body, including those that happen in the brain. Every hormone – whether it be estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, cortisol, or more – is made from the same “mother” hormone, of which the body has a limited supply. For women, estrogen is the primary metabolic regulator within the brain that keeps it happy, healthy and functioning. And yet, there is currently no way to measure precisely your brain’s estrogen production or levels. Blood tests from your doctor can't tell you how your hormone levels are functioning within your brain (or heart or gut for that matter). The good news? Dr. Mosconi is working on a new test that will help unearth this information for women. We can't wait to report on her innovations in the coming years.
Why should you care about hormones & the brain? Early studies reveal women's brains show signs of changing around menopause.
Although the average age of Alzheimer’s onset is 71, brain scans of patients who eventually develop the disease indicate that brain changes often start around ages 40 to 50. These changes appear as plaques, where metabolic activity begins to decline. Dr. Mosconi’s alarming discovery: brain scans of premenopausal women vs. post-menopausal women who are predisposed to Alzheimer's or who develop the disease indicate that brain activity can decline by a whopping 40% during this formative decade. This decline can almost certainly be attributed to declining brain estrogen levels. Of course not all women will experience this, but if you do have a family history of Alzheimer's, you may consider signing up for Dr. Mosconi's upcoming brain health studies.
Nutrition and hydration are key to brain health.
We’ve established that brain health and hormonal health are deeply intertwined. So how can you make sure your brain hormones are in great shape? Dr. Mosconi offers a basic suggestion: stay hydrated. Menopause often leads to dryness...everywhere. To combat this, Dr. Mosconi recommends a focus on regular hydration to prevent water loss, brain shrinkage, and other neurological symptoms. But ditch that purified water. Dr. Mosconi recommends spring water or anything with natural minerals (think: Poland Spring).
Second, Dr. Mosconi suggests eating foods that are estrogen-rich, including soy, flax, sesame seeds, dried apricots, strawberries, watermelon, wheat germ, and beans. Pro tip: a plant-based, estrogen-rich diet is proven to decrease hot flashes by 17%. For alleviating symptoms of anxiety or depression – both common during perimenopause & menopause – Dr. Mosconi also advises you eat fatty acids including fatty fish, oysters, and trout. In her words: “Let them eat caviar!” Before breaking the bank, though, keep in mind her comments that the store bought variety is just as good as top shelf caviar.
Beware of fads: Ketogenic Diets & High Intensity Training exercises may be doing more harm than good!
Dr. Mosconi’s take on the Keto diet: “As a neuroscientist, I can tell you there’s nothing wrong with carbohydrates!” Although keto might be good for your waste line, it may not be so good for your brain health. While men tend to burn fat more easily, women burn glucose (carbohydrates) better. In the ketogenic diet, when you starve the brain of glucose, you starve your brain cells, which is not ideal for long term brain health.
Dr. Mosconi also warns of the negative impact of high intensity training on brain health, especially for women 40+. The intensity of these workout classes encourage the brain to prioritize cortisol production over estrogen. Sustained cortisol levels over time can lead to memory loss and brain shrinkage. Dr. Mosconi’s advice: try to limit stress as much as possible. She recommended forms of meditation such as Kirtan Kriya, which are proven to positively impact stress levels.
More research done by women, for women, is required to advance the field.
Did you know that ⅔ of Alzheimer’s patients are women? Dr. Mosconi’s research confirms that women’s brains respond differently to aging than men’s brains do. Unfortunately, due to decades of silence – in 1977 the US Federal Drug Administration issued a policy excluding women “of childbearing potential” from clinical drug trials – we are left with little current research about how to best care for and nurture our brains. Fortunately for us, Dr. Mosconi is beginning to develop a prevention clinic that focuses specifically on women’s neurology, and additionally, is attracting hundreds of women both as patients and research subjects.
We are so inspired by the incredible work Dr. Mosconi has done to advance this field and we can't wait to follow along as she maps the next generation of women's brain health.
Dr. Mosconi is actively looking for subjects for her study, particularly non-white women in peri-menopause or menopause. Any woman between 40 and 60 who is interested, should reach out to the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative Program.
You can also follow Dr. Mosconi's work by signing up for her website here.
Article written by: Brigitte Schmittlein