Brain Health

PCOS Tied to Memory and Thinking Problems

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that causes enlarged ovaries with small fluid-filled cysts on the outer edges. Although its cause is unknown, heredity, excess androgen, low-grade inflammation, and insulin resistance may all play a role.

Women with PCOS can experience a variety of symptoms: excess facial and body hair, irregular periods, severe acne, male-pattern baldness, weight gain, and pelvic pain, to name a few. And now a new study has found an association to add to the mix: memory and thinking problems in middle age.

To be clear, the research, which was published in a January 2024 issue of the medical journal Neurology, doesn’t prove that PCOS causes cognitive decline. But it does the lay the foundation for more research into any link between cognitive changes and the hormonal disorder.

Symptoms of PCOS

It’s common for symptoms of PCOS to start around the time of a girl’s first period, although they can develop later. A PCOS diagnosis is made when the patient has at least two of the following symptoms:

• Excess androgen: High levels of this hormone can cause women to develop excess facial and body hair, severe acne and/or male-pattern baldness.

• Polycystic ovaries: The edge of the ovary may develop follicles containing immature eggs.

• Irregular periods: Fewer, longer, or irregular periods can be a symptom of PCOS. In addition, women may find that they have difficulty getting pregnant.

The Research Results

The study, which was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California San Francisco, involved 907 women who were between the ages of 18 and 30 when the study started. The participants were followed for 30 years, at the end of which they were given tests to measure attention, memory, processing speed, and verbal abilities. Of the 66 participants who had PCOS at the 30-year mark, all had test scores that were approximately 11% lower than those without the disorder.

The researchers then adjusted for race, education, and age. They found that the women with PCOS had lower scores on three of the five cognitive tests: attention, memory, and verbal abilities.

Thanks to brain scans given to 291 of the study participants at the 25-year and 30-year marks, the researchers were able to look at the integrity of the white matter pathways by viewing the movement of water molecules in the brain tissues. Of the 291 participants who had brain scans, 25 had PCOS. These women also had lower white matter integrity than those without PCOS.

It’s necessary to point out that the PCOS diagnosis wasn’t made by doctors. Instead, it was based on self-reported symptoms and androgen levels.

What to know about PCOS

If you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS or suspect you have it, it’s important to know that obesity commonly occurs with PCOS and can worsen complications of the disorder. In addition to weight loss, early diagnosis and treatment may lower the risk of long-term complications, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and infertility.

“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,” says study author Dr. Heather G. Huddleston of the University of California, San Francisco, which funded the research. “Making changes like incorporating more cardiovascular exercise and improving mental health may serve to also improve brain aging for this population.”


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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