The Hard Cell: Could Oestrogen Protect the Brain after Menopause?

New research shows a clear link between hormonal dips and a rise in Alzheimer’s in women. FemTech can provide the solutions to this and other female-specific conditions, but needs more investment, says investor and entrepreneur, Nicole Junkermann.

‘Let’s talk about dementia’ was the theme of this year’s World Alzheimer’s month — but it’s something that’s rarely, if ever, talked about in the context of women’s health. Yet, recent research suggesting that oestrogen may cause the body to make more antioxidants, protecting brain cells from damage, could also explain why the sudden drop in levels following menopause or hysterectomy seems to make women more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.

Findings from Alzheimer’s Disease International indicate that dementia disproportionately affects women around the world. Of every three patients with Alzheimer’s, two are women — and in the UK alone, 61 per cent of those living with dementia are female.

Neuroscientist, Dr Lisa Mosconi, director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative, has been leading the research around brain health and menopause. That it has taken this long to make the link at all though speaks volumes to the traditional marginalisation of the ‘female third age’ in a culture obsessed with youth and fertility. In terms of women’s health, we could equally say ‘let’s talk about the menopause’, and Dr Mosconi has delivered an excellent TED Talk on this topic.

And that’s something that FemTech can help to push forward and change — with a market expected to be worth $50bn by 2025. But it demands investment to flourish — female founders in FemTech are currently woefully underrepresented in venture capital funding, garnering just one per cent of the money available.

As a healthtech investor I see a huge amount of growth in the sector

If we do not support those pushing for answers, though, we as women run the risk of being spoken for, rather than to, about our wellbeing — or worse, ignored completely. As such, I often look for opportunities to invest in innovative companies trying to provide solutions to health problems specifically faced by women.

With the number of global cases of dementia estimated to reach 130m by 2050, Dr Mosconi insists we’re facing an epidemic that we’re currently ill-prepared for. Prevention is key to pushing back, and the impact that lifestyle and environment play on developing dementia has, until recently, been underestimated — studies indicate that one in three Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by addressing factors such as cardiovascular health, exercise, diet, sleep issues and intellectual stimulation. Adding an oestrogen boost to the list may yet help in the battle against the acceleration of brain ageing and cognitive decline post-menopause.

It’s clear there are questions that need urgent answers. Could oestrogen replacement, for those without the BRCA gene (that increases the chance of breast cancer), help protect women against dementia? Can failure to take HRT increase your risk of menopausal-related dementia later in life? And we need the answers now, not in years to come, in order to protect generations of women.

These new findings are exciting, with potentially far-reaching consequences, and indicate that hormonal factors may need to become a key focus of Alzheimer’s prevention strategies in women. But there is so much more we need to learn too, and so many more ways in which we can improve the experience of women in mid-to- later-life. With every woman eventually going through the menopause, this is an experience we should all be invested in — and a conversation we should all be having.

Nicole Junkermann is a self-made, international entrepreneur and investor.