Nighttime Hot Flashes May Signal Alzheimer’s Risk, Pitt Researchers Say

By: Ana Gorelova

A hot flash is not just a bothersome midlife symptom.

According to new research from Pitt and the University of Chicago published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, nighttime hot flashes may signal higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease-associated dementias for women going through the menopause transition.

Dr. Rebecca Thurston, professor of psychiatry at Pitt, led the research. She and her colleagues previously uncovered connections between hot flashes and changes in brain structure, function and connectivity.

“While women’s quality of life absolutely matters and the hot flashes deserve attention for their quality-of-life impacts alone, we also are seeing that these hot flashes may be telling us much more about a woman’s health than we previously thought,” said Thurston, who also directs the Women’s Biobehavioral Health Program at Pitt.

Dr. Rebecca Thurston

According to Thurston, Alzheimer’s disease is a major women’s health issue: it is among the top five leading causes of death in women, who comprise two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients. In addition, approximately a third of women experience moderate to severe or frequent vasomotor symptoms, or hot flashes, which, as new research suggests, may have some connection to Alzheimer’s pathology.

By recording the frequency of hot flashes using an objective hot flash monitoring device and pairing them with blood tests measuring biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers found that more hot flashes during sleep were associated with greater markers of amyloid, one of the key components of Alzheimer’s disease biology.

“There may be something particularly important about these sleep hot flashes that we have not appreciated up to this point,” said Thurston. “Associations between sleep hot flashes and brain health were not explained by poor sleep or estrogen levels, so we are trying to understand that connection better through our ongoing research.”

While Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers could someday provide low-cost and easy-to-administer ways to assess future risk of Alzheimer’s disease, they are not yet able to predict the exact degree of risk or explain the mechanisms underlying connections between physiological phenomena, such as hot flashes and Alzheimer’s disease pathologies, though those studies are rapidly advancing.

In the meantime, researchers caution that women who are experiencing hot flashes several times nightly should not be alarmed. But they emphasize that those individuals should mention their symptoms to their doctor, as well as try to step up healthy routines that are important for maintaining brain health, such as regular exercise, adequate sleep and treatment of high blood pressure and diabetes.

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