Researchers Find Link Between PCOS and Midlife Cognitive Decline

3 min read

Feb. 1, 2024 – A common condition called polycystic ovary syndrome that causes irregular menstrual cycles has been linked to signs of early cognitive decline. 

Known as PCOS, the condition may affect more than 1 in 10 women, and is among the most common causes of infertility. In addition to ovulation problems, PCOS can cause excess hair growth on the face and the other parts of the body, as well as abnormal growths on the ovaries. Women with PCOS are at a particularly heightened risk of getting type 2 diabetes, as well as other serious health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and sleep apnea, particularly if the women are overweight.

This latest study looked for possible links between PCOS and brain health in women once they were in their late 40s or older.

“Our results suggest that people with this condition have lower memory and thinking skills and subtle brain changes at midlife,” lead author Heather G. Huddleston, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, and director of the PCOS clinic at UCSF Health, said in a statement. “This could impact a person on many levels, including quality of life, career success and financial security.”

Specifically, women with a median age of 55 years old who also reported PCOS symptoms scored lower on cognitive tests commonly used to gauge brain health, like the ability to recall 15 unrelated words. The researchers also found that women with PCOS symptoms had changes in white matter of their brains based on magnetic resonance imaging, and the changes could be a sign of early brain aging.

The findings were published in this month’s edition of the journal Neurology. The research study did not show that PCOS causes cognitive decline, but instead found consistent links between the two conditions. The 907 women in the study ranged from 18 to 30 years old at the start of the study and were followed for 3 decades.

At the end of the 30-year study period, the women took tests evaluating memory, verbal abilities, attention, and processing speed, which is the time it takes to do a mental task. The researchers compared the results among women without PCOS to the 66 women in the study who likely had PCOS based on their reported symptoms or because they had a common PCOS condition of high levels of androgens, which are a type of hormone.

Women with PCOS symptoms scored about 11% lower on the attention test, which required them to look at a list of words in different colors and then say the color of the ink, rather than read the actual word. The women with PCOS symptoms also scored lower on memory and verbal ability tests.

The researchers cautioned that a limitation of the study was that the women in the PCOS group didn’t necessarily have a medical diagnosis of PCOS.

“Additional research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine how this change occurs, including looking at changes that people can make to reduce their chances of thinking and memory problems,” Huddleston said. “Making changes like incorporating more cardiovascular exercise and improving mental health may serve to also improve brain aging for this population.”