“Bikini Medicine” is the misconception that women are similar to men in all ways biologically, except for those body parts that fit under a bikini. In other words, women were assumed to be men, but with breasts and uteri. Women have long been understudied in science and medicine, and this has led to non-existent funding for medical studies which would be tailored towards women. Specifically, the female brain has received astonishingly little attention and was rarely studied by medical researchers, resulting in a wealth of misinformation about women’s health.
Women’s brains are significantly different from men’s brains. For example, in men, the path to Alzheimer’s disease is primarily vascular, whereas in women, it’s more metabolic and hormonal. These differences are significant in understanding the processes which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Male and female brains age differently, and hormones affect the brain in different ways. Estrogen, the female hormone, is neuro-protective, boosts the brain’s energy levels, which supports the immune systems and also keeps the brain young. Testosterone does the same in men; however, estrogen and testosterone have different life spans: testosterone declines gradually, while estrogen declines quickly. The estrogen deficit in women can potentially trigger episodes of mood changes or increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The focus is often on hormone deficiency and how those deficiencies impact women’s menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, weight gain, bone density, etc. While those issues are critical in the quality of life and protection of bone density, brain health should also be considered equally important.
Women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, 2 out of every 3 Alzheimer’s patients are women and twice as likely to end their lives suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, even when their longer lifespans and family history are taken into account. In addition, women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer; however, breast cancer has been clearly defined as a women’s health issue, while Alzheimer’s is not.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, the director of the Women’s Brain Initiative at Weill Cornel Medical College, has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and is the author of The XX Brain. Dr. Mosconi has extensively studied the female brain and its connection with Alzheimer’s and has found that as women age, life events can be the cause of increased stress, and stress can steal estrogen away from the brain. When experiencing stress, the body produces an overproduction of the hormone cortisol. When cortisol increases, estrogen decreases. Estrogen protects the female brain and keeps the brain from shrinking, and since estrogen begins to decline in the 4th decade, proactive brain health is the key to preventing Alzheimer’s risk. Proactively embracing a healthy lifestyle, a low-fat, high fiber diet, and the consideration of bio-identical hormone replacement can optimize brain health in women. Women need to reclaim their health. It takes discipline, perseverance, and knowledge.
Luckily, it is never too late to take care of yourself. No matter when you start, the benefits are undeniable. Let us help you live your best life.
To your brain health,
Dana Humes Goff, APRN, CNM, DNP