Brain health – just what does it mean and why is it so important for women?

In our latest blog, we speak to Natalie Hardaker, a PhD researcher at AUT New Zealand specialising in brain health and the female athlete. Natalie is also a triathlete and is passionate about spreading awareness and conducting research into the physiological differences between men and women.

What does brain health actually mean?

A ‘healthy’ brain is able to pay attention, receive and recognise input from our senses, learn and remember, communicate, solve problems, make decisions, support movement and regulate emotions. Neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease negatively impact the brain and research has shown that women suffer dementia at twice the rate of men.

One factor that is believed to play an important role in the sex differences observed in brain health is levels of sex hormones, in particular concentrations of oestrogen. Oestrogen receptors are widely distributed in the brain and have a regulatory role in cognition, anxiety, body temperature, appetite and sexual behaviour. Oestrogen also has a neuroprotective effect on the female brain.

Women also have a higher rate of depression and anxiety. This is thought to be linked to the decreased rate of serotonin synthesis and the fluctuations in synthesis which occur as a result of the menstrual cycle in females. All of these conditions negatively impact brain health.

One of the key processes involved in maintaining brain health is neuroplasticity. This is the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, experiences and injury. Neuroplasticity is important for athletes, particularly when learning new skills, patterns or techniques.

What happens to our brain health as we age?

As we age, we experience a natural decline in cognition, which is why things like learning a new language or remembering lists become much harder.

Unfortunately, this age-related cognitive decline can start when you’re in your 20s. However, what we do between the ages of 20-40 can have a big impact on the rate at which this happens. As mentioned above, rates of depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are much higher in females globally, which is why females may need to consider their brain health even more. This is particularly significant when women reach their peri- and post-menopausal years.

Exercise can have both a short-term and long-term positive effect on the brain. Aerobic exercise and also balance training have been found to be beneficial.

How does exercise affect brain health?

In the short-term, exercise increases blood flow, causing a rush of glucose and oxygen to the brain, which are then used to generate energy. Exercise also stimulates an increase in the release of serotonin, which is a known mood-booster. This is why, after a workout, you might feel energised and be able to focus more, as well as often feeling ‘on top of the world’!

Exercise can also increase levels of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is essential to support and maintain neuroplasticity. An increase in BDNF availability in the hippocampus (the brain region that is central to learning and memory) could be crucial in supporting brain vascularisation, neurogenesis, functional changes in neuronal structure, neuronal resistance to injury and preventing cognitive decline. BDNF levels can also vary across the menstrual cycle in women – typically higher levels are seen during the oestrogen peaks in the late follicular (phase 2) and mid-luteal (phase 3) phases.

What other things can affect brain health?

Stress, smoking, high blood pressure, poor sleep, nutrition and diabetes can all have a negative impact on our brain health. In fact, some studies suggest that about a third of Alzheimer’s disease cases can be attributed to modifiable risk factors (e.g. not as a result of genetics). Having a regular menstrual cycle may be beneficial due to the neuroprotective role of oestrogen; a higher lifetime exposure to oestrogen preserves cognition.

Brain health is also significantly impacted by food choice, and certain foods may boost brain functions and help to ward off cognitive decline. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is associated with improved cognitive function and better brain health!

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