Motherhood, the Brain and Dementia: Changing Hormones Alter Risk

Throughout decades of study, hormone therapy (HT), often but not always the same as hormone replacement therapy (HRT), has been glorified and demonized in turn. The information that doctors receive has come from ongoing studies that seemed to offer over time radically conflicting results. A new study may add more confusion since this study has found that not only does HT given near menopause create changes in a woman’s brain, but motherhood itself creates changes.

New research by Dr. Liisa Galea, at the University of British Columbia, suggests the form of estrogens used in HT as well as the hormones that are the result of bearing children could be critical to the explanation of why HT has different effects in different studies.

An article in Medical News Today revealed that Dr. Galea's research with animals discovered one form of estrogen, called estradiol, had beneficial effects on the mouse brains. Estradiol is the form of estrogen found in young women. Conversely, estrone, which is the predominant form of estrogen in older women, was not beneficial and estrone is the form of estrogen used in most hormone replacement therapy.

Even more interesting is the fact that the effects of estrone also depended on whether the rats had experienced motherhood. According to Dr. Galea’s research, estrone-based HRT impaired learning in middle-aged rats that were mothers while it improved learning in rats that were not.

The article quoted Dr. Galea as saying, "Hormones have a profound impact on our mind. Pregnancy and motherhood are life-changing events resulting in marked alterations in the psychology and physiology of a woman. Our results argue that these factors should be taken into account when treating brain disorders in women."

According to the Alzheimer's Association 2014 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report, a woman's estimated lifetime risk of developing Alzheimer's at age 65 is one in six, compared with nearly one in 11 for a man. Not only are women more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease,women are also much more likely to be caregivers, whether it's for children, a spouse or elders. Therefore, the enormity of the task that researchers face when trying to determine if hormones should be manipulated as women age now becomes more complicated, not less.

While the mixed results are frustrating, these studies are important. They are done by researchers who are trying to understand the human brain and the differences between genders.

The good part here is that scientists are acknowledging that there are differences in how male and female bodies react to medications, hormones and even life events. The bad part is that we’ll continue to receive all kinds of conflicting information as scientists work out the complicated interaction between hormones and brain function.

You, as a person, should work with a doctor who views you as an individual. A careful look at your life as your live it, whether or not you've experienced motherhood, your genetic background and your medical risks will help you and your doctor decide what is best for you.

Until there is solid evidence that any type of hormone treatment is helpful or harmful for all women, partner with a good doctor and try not to worry. There should be some comfort in knowing that the female body is designed for motherhood. Discuss your worries with your doctor but don't be overly concerned. Part of taking care of your health as a woman is having a positive attitude about being a woman.

Carol Bradley Bursack
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Carol Bradley Bursack

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. This experience provided her with her foundation upon which she built her reputation as a columnist, author, blogger, and consultant. Carol is as passionate about supporting caregivers work through the diverse challenges in their often confusing role as she is about preserving the dignity of the person needing care. Find out much more about Carol at