Is it really true? Can menopause cause memory loss, or is mental-pause just in my head?
Issues with memory loss are almost always included in the list of menopause symptoms. The brain, like any other organ, ages. So maybe when a woman begins realizing that her memory isn’t quite what it used to be, perhaps this is simply because she’s getting older—and that menopause isn’t the only factor.
The brain does shrink with age, and it can’t be said enough: Exercise and good nutrition help prevent brain shrinkage. There are many things potentially going on when it comes to preserving—or losing—sharp memory abilities.
How does menopause fit in with memory loss?
Menopause really does affect memory loss. The Journal of the North American Menopause Society (yeah, I didn’t realize there was such a thing either, who’d a figured) reports that memory problems tend to be the most striking soon after menopause is completed. The study’s lead author, Miriam Weber, Ph.D., states that the cognitive challenges are most notable “in the first year following their final menstrual period.” And by the way, cognitive is just a fancy word for thinking.
Cognitive difficulties may relate to the ability to absorb and store new information and then use it, as well as verbal and numerical memory (e.g., memorizing a new phone number), and recall items off of a mentally constructed list (such as for grocery shopping). So it isn’t just about forgetting where you parked your car. OK, so that’s why I count my fingers for my four items I need at the store and promptly have no idea what I’m supposed to buy after I walk in the door. Whew, at least there’s a reason other than the whiskey!
Dr. Weber’s study found no association between the participants’ self-reported insomnia, anxiety, and depression with the cognitive issues. Thus, blaming poor sleep, stress and anxiety on the memory problems don’t apply here; mental decline is an independent factor during the year following the conclusion of menopause.
Understandably, new-onset cognitive challenges would be a source of depression and trouble sleeping. Dr. Weber speculates that hormonal fluctuations “could play a role” in memory issues, but no definitive link was found.
The hippocampus and frontal cortex of the brain enable us to absorb new data, process and retain it and make use of it. It’s no coincidence that these regions are full of estrogen receptors!
Dr. Weber also says that the memory problems of menopause “are normal and, in all likelihood, temporary.”
Tasks Affected by Menopausal Memory/Cognitive Problems
- Calculating a tip
- Balancing a checkbook
- Understanding instructions about something new
- Keeping track of teen kids’ activities
A menopausal or postmenopausal woman may find that conducting these tasks isn’t as easy at it used to be, or she can’t do it as quickly. As you can see, these examples relate more to cognitive function rather than just straight memory, as in recalling the name of the neighbor’s new puppy, though a new level of general forgetfulness is often reported.
Menopause doesn’t just affect the ovaries, as many people believe. The brain is intimately linked to reproduction (e.g., it sends chemical messengers to the reproductive organs). It only stands to reason that this transition in life would leave a mark (though not permanent) on the brain.
What about premature menopause’s effect on memory?
We just discussed normal or typical menopause (average age 50), but premature menopause (surgically and non-surgically at or prior to 40) is a different animal, says a study that appears in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The researchers found that premature menopause resulted in an overall cognitive decline extending out seven years. This surely sucks, but the good news is that there was no significant risk of dementia.
Solutions to Menopausal Memory Problems
It goes without saying that practicing memory tricks will come in handy, such as repeating the name of a new person out loud when introduced and writing down your shopping list rather than just relying on memory.
But a woman can beef up her brain, so to speak, by employing clean eating habits (your brain is what you eat) and exercise. You don’t want a double whammy: menopause-induced mental fog plus age-induced brain shrinkage. Oh crap, can that sound any worse?
Kicking up mental activities a notch or two has also been shown to boost brain health and memory (such as doing crossword puzzles, playing Scrabble, etc.), but some studies show that exercise is more effective. So why not do both approaches just to be sure!
Here’s some encouragement because these studies involved modifiable factors:
- Exercising later in life helps protect the brain from age-related changes.
- Aerobics boosts the memory center in older women’s brains.
- Moderate to intense exercise lowers risk of developing age-related brain lesions (but be careful increasing intensity of exercise level and build up to it).
- Tai chi increases brain size.
- Keeping blood sugar on the lower end of normal reduces age-related brain shrinkage.
Final Thoughts on Menopause and Memory
To minimize this consequence of “the change,” you should commit to moderate to intense exercise and increased brain activities. Exercise should include strength training. Clean eating will help prevent your blood sugar levels from getting into the high range of normal, which the Cherbuin study showed was associated with increased brain atrophy.
In short, cognitive function isn’t caused by one thing; many factors play into it!
Think of your brain as a bank account. If you’ve made regular deposits over the years, then the small menopause withdrawals won’t bankrupt you. And if you haven’t entered menopause yet, don’t wait till then to start saving.
Have you experienced any lapses in memory lately?
Comment below on your experiences so we can all learn from each other.