Polycystic ovary syndrome may increase the risk of memory and thinking problems in middle age, a new study suggests.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that affects up to 10% of women and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart problems.
While less is known about how the condition affects the brain, a new study published in the journal Neurology suggests it may impair memory and lead to earlier brain aging.
The study involved 907 female participants who were 18 to 30 years old at the beginning of the study period. Of those, 66 participants had polycystic ovary syndrome.
The diagnosis, however, was not made by a doctor but was based on androgen levels and self-reported symptoms. This means that participants may not have remembered all the information accurately.
During the 30-year follow-up, the participants completed tests to measure memory, verbal abilities, processing speed, and attention.
In a test measuring attention, people with PCOS had an 11% lower score on average compared to people without the condition.
After adjusting for age, race, and education, researchers found that people with PCOS had lower scores on tests measuring memory, attention, and verbal abilities than those without the condition.
Accelerated brain aging
At years 25 and 30 of the study, a group of 291 participants, including 24 with polycystic ovary syndrome, had brain scans.
Researchers used the scans to analyze the integrity of the white matter pathways in the brain by looking at the movement of water molecules in the brain tissue.
The scans revealed that people with polycystic ovary syndrome had lower white matter integrity, which may be an early sign of brain aging.
“Additional research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine how this change occurs, including looking at changes that people can make to reduce their chances of thinking and memory problems,” study author Heather G. Huddleston, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
The exact cause of PCOS isn’t known, but increased levels of androgen — a male sex hormone — play an important part in developing the condition.
While PCOS is most often discussed in the context of infertility, the condition may have much broader health implications.
People with PCOS are often insulin-resistant, which puts them at a higher risk of diabetes. More than half of PCOS patients develop type 2 diabetes by age 40. Moreover, they are more likely to develop gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy), which can cause problems for both the mother and the baby.
PCOS is also linked to an elevated risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
The symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome may include the following:
- Heavy, long, irregular, or absent periods
- Acne or oily skin
- Excessive hair on the face or body
- Hair thinning or male-pattern baldness
- Weight gain, especially around the belly
- Multiple small cysts on the ovaries
While the study does not prove that polycystic ovary syndrome causes cognitive decline, the authors recommend people with the condition incorporate more cardiovascular exercise and improve mental health to slow down brain aging.