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A new study links PCOS to cognitive decline later in life

Woman with stomach cramps
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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) brings with it a host of symptoms that can impact the mind and body, and new research has uncovered yet another unnerving one, potentially linking it to cognitive decline later in life.

The study, published Jan. 31 in the journal Neurology, is one of few to dig into the link between PCOS and brain health, particularly at midlife. Researchers followed 907 female participants between the ages of 18 and 30 for three decades, completing tests on memory, verbal abilities, attention, and processing speed. They found that the 66 women with PCOS scored, on average, 11% lower on the attention tests than participants without the condition, also scoring lower on measurements of memory and verbal abilities.

Via brain scans, researchers also found that 25 participants with PCOS also had poorer white matter, a sign of brain aging. White matter consists of the bundled nerve fibers that facilitate communication between areas of the brain, and it impacts both active learning and memory.

Dr. Heather G. Huddleston, director of the University of California San Francisco’s PCOS clinic and research program and the study’s first author, noted in a news release that little research has been done in this area, no doubt due to the gender health gap, in which women’s health concerns like PCOS are widely underfunded and therefore under-researched. “Our results suggest that people with this condition have lower memory and thinking skills and subtle brain changes at midlife,” Huddleston noted. “This could impact a person on many levels, including quality of life, career success, and financial security.”

As scary as it sounds, it’s worth noting the study’s limitations, namely its small sample size of only 66 women with confirmed and diagnosed PCOS. And while the research shows an association between the condition and cognitive dysfunction, it doesn’t definitely prove causation. One expert even told CNN that if someone is adequately treating their PCOS, they are “already doing a lot to protect their brain health down the line.”

“Essentially, what we could be seeing here is what happens when PCOS is left untreated,” said Mateja Perović, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. “This is important for any concerned readers to keep in mind.”

The TL:DR here: don’t panic, and of course, bring any concerns to your doctor. PCOS is a chronic condition that affects up to 13% of women and girls of reproductive age worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). But according to disparities in healthcare around the globe, the WHO notes that as many as 70% of girls and women with PCOS are under or misdiagnosed.

Symptoms of this hormonal imbalance include fertility issues, menstrual cycle abnormalities, hirsutism (unwanted hair growth), weight gain (in some patients), insulin resistance, and acne, along with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. There is no cure for PCOS, but there are ways to manage symptoms, including through healthy lifestyle changes. The study’s authors note that more research needs to be done, so here’s hoping the pros can take a closer look at the mind-body connection for PCOS and other women’s health concerns, since we’d say it’s far overdue.