A 30-year study of over 900 participants has found an association between polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and problems with memory and cognition. While it’s not possible to say for sure that PCOS caused the observed issues, the scientists behind the work say more research is now needed to better understand these potential risks of a condition that many struggle with for years before getting a diagnosis.
The World Health Organization estimates that PCOS could affect up to 13 percent of reproductive-aged women. Other figures have also been cited, and data can vary depending upon the inclusion of those assigned female at birth as well as cisgender women. However you slice it, though, up to 70 percent of those affected remain undiagnosed, so there’s a big gap in recognition of the condition that is not being filled at present.
As the name suggests, one of the symptoms of PCOS is the formation of cysts in the ovaries. The condition is characterized by hormonal imbalances, leading to things like irregular periods, lack of ovulation, excess facial and body hair, and weight gain. It’s a leading cause of infertility, and is linked to comorbidities like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Quite apart from the debilitating physical symptoms, many people with PCOS also experience negative psychological impacts from the disease, including depression and poor body image.
Now a new study, which followed 907 female participants for 30 years, has uncovered a possible link between PCOS and problems with memory and cognition in middle age.
Study author Dr Heather G. Huddleston of the University of California San Francisco explained in a statement that while scientists have a understanding of how PCOS can affect metabolic health, “less is known about how this condition affects brain health.”
“Our results suggest that people with this condition have lower memory and thinking skills and subtle brain changes at midlife. This could impact a person on many levels, including quality of life, career success and financial security.”
The participants were aged between 18 and 30 years old at the start of the study period. After 30 years, at which time 66 members of the study group had PCOS, they were asked to complete tests of memory, verbal ability, processing speed, and attention.
One of the tests for attention was the Stroop test, which you’ve probably seen before: you’re presented with a list of color names written in different colored fonts, and you have to state the color of the text rather than reading the actual word. The study found that the average score for people with PCOS was around 11 percent lower than for those without the condition.
Overall, scores in three of the tests – focusing on memory, attention, and verbal abilities – were lower for those with PCOS, after adjusting for age, race, and education.
As well as the cognitive tests at year 30, a subgroup of the participants (291, of whom 25 had PCOS) also received brain scans at years 25 and 30. The scans revealed lower white matter integrity in the patients with PCOS, which the researchers say could indicate premature brain aging.
The study has some limitations, in particular the fact that the PCOS diagnoses were not made by a doctor but were based on tests of the patients’ hormone levels and their self-reported symptoms. It’s also not possible from these data to say definitively that PCOS caused the cognitive and brain changes observed, but the researchers believe there’s enough here to warrant further investigation.
“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,” said Huddleston.
“Making changes like incorporating more cardiovascular exercise and improving mental health may serve to also improve brain aging for this population.”
The study is published in the journal Neurology.