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Menopause and Dementia

How a very old view has been updated and why it affects middle-aged women

AnnA Rushton

Women traditionally throughout history have been regarded with extreme caution once they hit middle age.  The mood swings and loss of libido that often accompanies onset of menopause has never been regarded favourably and words like ‘hysteria’ and ‘madness’ were bandied about freely and with little regard to accuracy.  One could also say that as a woman ages she becomes more confident and perhaps more willing to express her views, and again historically that has not often been welcomed by society as a whole or the woman’s family in particular.

It might be unfair to blame middle age and menopause, but is there any basis in fact?  Until recently that remained unstudied, but a new Swedish study sheds some light and exposes the real culprit.  Lena Johansson recently published data as a part of the Prospective Population Study of Women in Gothenburg, Sweden.   What they were looking as was the relationship between psychological stress and the development of dementia in late life in women aged 38–60 years.

This was a long-term study of 1415 women over a period of 35 years and during it 161 participants developed dementia of varying types, including Alzheimer’s.    What they found was that the women who experience frequent episodes of stress and anxiety in middle age were twice as more likely to develop dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease when compared to comparable women who had reported experiencing no stress over the same period. ,

So what does this tell us?  That menopause leads to dementia?  No, I don’t think so because what it says to me is that the culprit here is psychological stress.   The link is clear that in middle age acute or prolonged stress can lead to dementia in later life.  Stress is something that is not specific to women, as has been seen in recent studies on soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Those soldiers were also found to have a greater risk for dementia as over 7 years of follow-up 17.2% of the veterans developed dementia.

We know from other research that chronic distress can induce damage, affecting parts of the brain, leading to persisting levels of cortisol and that is a contributory factor that plays an important role in the onset of coronary heart disease, infection and accelerated aging.

The key here is that everyone reacts to stress differently and going through menopause is not the primary risk factor.  Everyone is different, and the same environmental stressors are not likely to induce similar stress reactions in all people due to their different personality traits. Vulnerability and capacity for resilience to major stress are what are important and in my book ‘How To Cope Successfully With Stress’ I address this crucial issue.  Along with offering real, practical solutions I want to make everyone understand that the very best advice is that it is not the stress itself that is the problem.  It is how you approach it and deal with it that makes all the difference.

Your attitude is crucial in overcoming stress – it’s not the menopause that can bring on dementia it’s the level of stress you are under, and how you manage it.

To find out more about AnnA’s book on stress go to

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