Women who experience more hot flashes and night sweats during menopause may have more of a brain biomarker called white matter hyperintensities, according to a new study published in the October 12 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
White matter hyperintensities are tiny lesions visible on brain scans that become more common with age or with uncontrolled high blood pressure. These brain biomarkers have been linked in some studies to an increased risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and cognitive decline.
“Previous research has shown that the menopause transition is associated with a worsening of women’s cardiovascular health,” said study author Rebecca C. Thurston, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. “Menopause is also increasingly recognized as an important transition for women’s brain health. Our study specifically looked at the common symptoms of menopause, hot flashes, and night sweats, and how they are related to white matter hyperintensities in the brain.”
The study involved 226 women with an average age of 59 who did not use hormone therapy. The women had an average of five hot flashes or night sweats over a 24-hour period, approximately three hot flashes when they were awake and two-night sweats during sleep.
Researchers monitored participants for three days. For the first 24 hours, participants wore a device that monitors hot flashes and night sweats through the temperature of the skin. For three days, they self-reported their hot flashes and night sweats in an electronic diary. They also wore a device on their wrist that monitored sleep and completed a sleep diary. After the three-day period, participants completed blood tests as well as brain scans to measure white matter hyperintensities in six regions of the brain.
After adjusting for age and vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, researchers found associations between hot flashes or night sweats and white matter hyperintensities persisted. They found that with every additional night sweat there was approximately a 6% increase in the number of white matter hyperintensities in the brain.
Hot flashes and night sweats were most linked to white matter hyperintensities in the frontal lobe of the brain, the area responsible for voluntary movement, expressive language, and the ability to plan and organize.
“These results call into question the common perception that hot flashes and night sweats are benign symptoms that don’t have much importance in women’s medical care and underscore the potential links of these symptoms to brain health,” Thurston added. “Hot flashes have the potential to serve as a midlife marker of brain health in women that may ultimately help identify women who are more likely to have poor brain health as they age.”
A limitation of the study was that a majority of the participants were white. Thurston says future research should include more women from other racial and ethnic groups.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh.