“Alzheimer’s Disease is a tragic way to complete your life”, says Professor Natasha Rajah, Director of the Brain Imaging Centre here at the Douglas Institute. Since women are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) later in life, Prof. Rajah’s team has started to explore why that is and to take into account sex differences in their research.

Prof. Rajah believes that our understanding of women’s brain health and aging is insufficient. She and her team want to figure out if the brain systems impacted by ageing and AD are the same in women, compared to men. This information is important for developing the best possible treatments for AD.

There is growing evidence that menopause and estrogen decline affects cognition in some, but not all, women.

According to Prof. Rajah, understanding why menopause has negative cognitive effects in some women, may be essential for grasping what is happening to women who develop AD and to help develop the right treatments. Unfortunately, she notes that it is difficult to get people to participate in her study; her target group is generally very busy and doesn’t take the time to get involved. “Please come in and get your brain scanned for us”, she says.

Her research targets middle-aged women around 40-60 years old. “Mid-life is THE critical period in adult development – it’s when many of us start to gain weight, develop diabetes and heart disease. In women, this is the time at which we experience menopause, which for some can cause sleep disturbances, hot flashes and cognitive and emotional effects. We think that midlife, and women’s menopausal transition, may be a critical period in adult development at risk of developing Alzheimer’s since hormone levels are changing.”

Early identification and intervention with precision medicine could prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Prof. Rajah has always been very curious about the mind, especially how we learn and remember. She states that “episodic memory is the core of who we are. Without episodic memory, we don’t know how to navigate the world and who we are.”

She concludes with an eye-opening thought: “if you take away someone’s episodic memory, you take away their identity and perhaps their hope. This can have profound negative health effects .” This is yet another example of the importance of a healthy mind in our daily lives.