It ranks as the second biggest killer of all Australians, but for one group, in particular, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of death.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in Australia, with more than 400,000 people living with the degenerative brain disease.
Although it is possible to develop Alzheimer’s at a younger age, it is more common in over-65s.
Alzheimer’s is caused by nerve cell death resulting in shrinkage of the brain. The disease is characterised by memory loss, affected speech, reduced cognitive functioning and impaired mobility.
An individual’s personality may also change, and health and functional ability decline as the condition progresses.
Shockingly, around two-thirds of those who develop Alzheimer’s are women. That’s not just in Australia either – the 2:1 ratio of female to male Alzheimer’s sufferers is a pattern repeated around the world.
The mystery of why women develop Alzheimer’s at such higher rates has puzzled scientists for decades and, until recently, the leading theory was simply that women live longer than men.
But now, a new study published in the journal Nature may hold the answers. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that menopause may be the key trigger for Alzheimer’s in women after studying female mice who had their ovaries removed (to trigger menopause).
The key is a substance known as ‘follicle-stimulating hormone’ (FSH). This hormone is produced in the pituitary gland in the brain and aids women during their reproductive years. It causes ovarian follicles to enlarge and start producing oestrogen.
As a woman ages and enters menopause, she loses these follicles, which causes oestrogen levels to drop dramatically.
The drop in oestrogen leads to an increase in FSH production, as not enough oestrogen is being produced to act as a trigger to stop the brain producing more FSH.
The researchers believe this high concentration of FSH in the brain activates a signalling pathway that is responsible for Alzheimer’s disease developing.
More research is needed, but the team believes this may open up Alzheimer’s treatment and prevention options using targeted FSH-blockers.
“These data not only suggest a causal role for rising serum FSH levels in the exaggerated Alzheimer’s disease pathophysiology during menopause,” the study says, “but also reveal an opportunity for treating Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, osteoporosis and dyslipidaemia with a single FSH-blocking agent.”
Men also produce FSH in the brain, where it helps regulate sperm production. However, FSH levels in men tend to remain relatively stable after puberty for the remainder of their lives and there is no menopausal period.
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