Well-Being Medical Advances

The leading expert on women’s brains says they are more likely to get Alzheimer’s

Dr. Lisa Mosconi has been thinking about thinking for quite some time — in fact, since she was just a child. 

“My parents are both nuclear physicists,” she recounts, which encouraged her to catch the science bug from an early age.

A native Italian, she studied neuroscience and nuclear medicine at the University of Florence and NYU before joining Weill Cornell School of Medicine in 2016. Since 2018, she has been director of the Women’s Brain Initiative and associate director of the first Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the United States.  

Mosconi’s latest book, The XX Brain, sets out to detail the groundbreaking findings of her research into the comparatively understudied world of women’s brains, including their cognitive distinctions from men’s brains, beginning at conception and continuing throughout the aging process. 

Much of her ambitious research into women’s brains and nutrition is illuminated by a critical familial link: “I have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease that affects the women in my family,” she says. “And that’s how I learned that it is not just my family, but that Alzheimer’s disease really affects more women than men.” 

Two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s patients are women, more than 3.5 million of whom are in the United States. Mosconi says that if a solution is not found or things do not rapidly change, “then the disease is going to triple by the year 2050 with a projected 15 million Alzheimer’s patients” in the U.S.

One of the prevailing views to explain the disparity between men and women developing Alzheimer’s has been that women live longer on average than men, and old age is a key factor risk factor for the disease.

Through her research, Mosconi bore deeply into that prevailing argument, all the while unearthing new neurological findings—as well as historical precedents—that render the idea completely false.

That historical precedent is, she says, “a concept that I described, called ‘bikini medicine,’ which “really describes how, historically, medical professionals believed the men and women were essentially the same person, excluding those body parts that would fit under a bikini.”

The false assumption led to decades of marginal, if not completely nonexistent funding for medical studies tailored towards women. Moreover, as she explains, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1960s banned women from clinical trials after the thalidomide tragedy resulted in severe birth defects for thousands of children. 

In turn, a gap in understanding women’s brains and bodies as fundamentally different widened over time.

Mosconi lays out critical findings through her research. At the forefront is the reality of menopause on the female brain, which “is more like a trigger in which the superpower of estrogen is revoked, and the brain has to find new ways to stay strong, healthy, and resilient,” she writes. Moreover, she finds that the path to Alzheimer’s for men is primarily vascular, whereas it is more metabolic and hormonal for women.

Fueled by her scientific curiosity and deep familial connection to the story of Alzheimer’s, Mosconi lays out a series of preventative measures rooted in lifestyle, including diet, exercise and sleep regulation.

There are distinct chapters committed to brain-healthy diets, a topic of her previous work, Brain Food, as well as meal planning guides.

“My research has definitely inspired me to leave a certain way to make certain choices,” she says.

“And I now have a little girl who’s four and a half and I’m so careful with. Everything from minimizing pollution and environmental toxins in our house and her life and the right foods and nutrients that she really needs to thrive, not just grow, but also really thrive.”

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