PCOS patients ‘could be more likely to struggle with memory problems’ – study shows

People with polycystic ovary syndrome may be more likely to have memory and thinking problems in middle age, according to new research.

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that is defined by irregular menstruation and elevated levels of androgens. Other symptoms may include excess hair growth, acne, infertility and poor metabolic health.

While it is known to be linked to conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, not much is known about how it affects the brain. However, a study conducted in the US reportedly suggests there could be a link between the condition and memory problems in ‘middle age.’

Study author Heather G. Huddleston, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco said: “Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common reproductive disorder that impacts up to 10% of women.

“While it has been linked to metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes that can lead to heart problems, 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 study involved 907 female participants who were 18 to 30 years old at the start of the study. They were followed for 30 years as they completed tests to measure memory, verbal abilities, processing speed and attention.

In a test measuring attention, participants looked at a list of words in different colours and were asked to state the colour of the ink rather than read the actual word. For example, the word “blue” could be displayed in red, so the correct response would be red.

Sixty-six of the participants, who all had polycystic ovary syndrome, had a score that was approximately 11% lower on average when compared to those without the condition.

After adjusting for age, race and education, researchers found that people with polycystic ovary syndrome had lower scores on three of the five tests. The tests with lower scores focused on memory, attention and verbal abilities.

At years 25 and 30 of the study, a smaller group of 291 participants had brain scans. Of those, 25 had polycystic ovary syndrome. With the scans, researchers looked at the integrity of the white matter pathways in the brain by looking at movement of water molecules in the brain tissue.

Researchers found that people with polycystic ovary syndrome had lower white matter integrity, which may indicate early evidence of brain aging.

However, it is important to note that the data does not prove that polycystic ovary syndrome causes cognitive decline. It only shows an association.

Huddleston added that further research would be needed to confirm the findings as they would need to look deeper into “changes that people can make to reduce their chances of thinking and memory problems.”

She added: “Making changes like incorporating more cardiovascular exercise and improving mental health may serve to also improve brain aging for this population.”

The study was commissioned by the University of California, San Francisco, published in the January 31, 2024, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.