Objective: Phytoestrogens, which consist mainly of isoflavones, lignans, and coumestans have estrogenic and anti-inflammatory properties. Previous research suggests that higher dietary or supplemental intakes of isoflavones and lignans are related to better cognitive performance in middle-aged and older women.
Methods: We conducted longitudinal analysis of dietary phytoestrogens and cognitive performance in a cohort of African American, white, Chinese, and Japanese women undergoing the menopausal transition. The tests were Symbol Digit Modalities, East Boston Memory, and Digits Span Backward. Phytoestrogens were assessed using the Food Frequency Questionnaire. We modeled each cognitive score as a function of concurrent value of the primary predictors (highest tertile of isoflavones, lignans, or coumestrol) and covariates including the menopausal transition stage.
Results: Coumestrol and isoflavone intakes were 10 and 25 times greater, respectively, in Asian than in non-Asian participants. During late perimenopause and postmenopause, Asian women with high isoflavone intakes did better on processing speed, but during early perimenopause and postmenopause, high-isoflavone Asian consumers performed worse on verbal memory. The highest isoflavone consumers among non-Asians likewise posted lower verbal memory scores during early perimenopause. A verbal memory benefit of higher dietary lignan consumption was apparent only during late perimenopause, when women from all ethnic/racial groups who were in the highest tertile of intake demonstrated a small advantage. Coumestrol was unrelated to cognitive performance.
Conclusions: The cognitive effects of dietary phytoestrogens are small, seem to be class-specific, vary by menopause stage and cognitive domain, and differ among ethnic/racial groups (but whether this is related to dose or to host factors cannot be discerned).