A new study from investigators at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital has revealed that cognitive changes in aging women which affect the memory may begin decades earlier in life than previously thought. Researchers believed this shift generally happened around age 65, but found different results when they studied women ages 45 to 55.

"We set out to study cognitive aging from a women's health perspective. One of the most profound hormonal changes in a woman's life is the transition to menopause. By shifting our focus to this midlife period, we detected early changes in memory circuitry that are evident decades before the age range traditionally targeted by cognitive neuroscience studies on aging," lead study author Emily Jacobs, a former member of the Division of Women's Health and the Department of Psychiatry at BWH, said in The Harvard Gazette.

"Aging isn't a process that suddenly begins at 65. Subtle neural and cognitive changes happen earlier. Considering a person's sex and reproductive status — above and beyond numerical age — is critical for detecting those changes,” she added.

The research team studied 200 men and women and asked them to perform a task that tested their verbal memory and then used functional MRI to look in the brain’s memory circuitry. They also evaluated brain activity patterns of high-performing postmenopausal women, the Gazette reported.

"Our findings underscore the incredible variability of the brain as we age and the critical importance and complexity of the impact of sex on aging, including the unique role of sex steroid hormones in memory function," senior author Jill Goldstein, director of research at the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology at BWH and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told The Gazette.

These results could possibly lead to further studies of memory circuitry aging, and help identify early antecedents of future memory decline and risk for Alzheimer's disease, Goldstein added.

Source: Jacobs E, Goldstein J. Memory Changes May Occur In Women Decades Earlier Than Previously Thought. Journal of Neuroscience. 2016.

Read more:

Early Onset Menopause: How Age Impacts Risk For Heart Disease, Premature Death

Memory Loss With Age Is Not Inevitable: Brain Scans Of ‘Super Agers’ Shed Light On Memory Retention