The memory problems and “brain fog” that many women describe while going through menopause have been explained by scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago in a new study.
“The most important thing to realize is that there really are some cognitive changes that occur during this phase in a woman’s life,” said Miriam Weber, Ph.D., the neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who led the study.
“If a woman approaching menopause feels she is having memory problems, no one should brush it off or attribute it to a jam-packed schedule. She can find comfort in knowing that there are new research findings that support her experience. She can view her experience as normal.”
The study is one of only a few to fully investigate a woman’s brain function during menopause and to compare those findings to the woman’s own reports of memory or cognitive problems.
For the study, 75 women, between the ages of 40 and 60, completed a series of cognitive tests that tested several skills, including the ability to learn and retain new information, to mentally manipulate new information, and to sustain attention over time. They answered questions about depression, anxiety, hot flashes, and sleep difficulties, and their blood levels of the hormones estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone were measured.
The researchers found that the women’s complaints were tied to certain types of memory deficits, but not others.
For example, women who self-reported memory difficulties were far more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure “working memory” – the ability to receive new information and manipulate it in their heads. In real life this might include figuring out the tip at a restaurant, adding up a series of numbers in one’s head, or adjusting one’s itinerary in a short time after an unexpected flight change.
Women’s reports of memory difficulties were also linked to a lessened ability to hold and focus attention on a challenging task. This might include doing the taxes, maintaining sharp attention on the road during a long drive, finishing a complex report at work despite boredom, or sticking with a particularly challenging book.
Weber said that these types of cognitive processes aren’t what usually come to mind when people think of “memory.” For example, people often consider memory to be the ability to remember a piece of information, such as a grocery item you need to remember to buy. Interestingly, the researchers found little evidence that women have difficulties with this ability. Weber notes, however, that the women in the study were more highly educated and, on average, were of higher intelligence than the average population, and a decline might have been difficult to detect.
Women who had memory complaints were also more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties. The team did not find any link between memory problems and hormone levels.
Between one-third and two-thirds of women during this stage of life report forgetfulness and other problems that they view as related to poor memory.
“If you speak with middle-aged women, many will say, yes, we’ve known this. We’ve experienced this,” said Weber, assistant professor of Neurology. “But it hasn’t been investigated thoroughly in the scientific literature.
“Science is finally catching up to the reality that women don’t suddenly go from their reproductive prime to becoming infertile. There is this whole transition period that lasts years. It’s more complicated than people have realized.”
“People are surprised to learn that typically, for example in elderly adults, there really isn’t a lot of evidence that memory complaints are tied to real memory deficits. Menopausal women are different. They are good at rating their memory skills,” added co-author Pauline Maki, Ph.D. director of Women’s Mental Health Research in UIC’s Department of Psychiatry.
“We don’t know why but perhaps it’s because their memory changes are more sudden and they are aware of other changes that accompany the menopause, like hot flashes. This might help them to better assess their mental abilities,” Maki added.
The new results are similar to findings from a previous study that Weber did with Mark Mapstone Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, as well as results from a study which included hundreds of women but used less sensitive measures to look at cognitive performance.
“There really is something going on in the brain of a woman at this stage in her life,” Mapstone said. “There is substance to their complaints that their memory is a bit fuzzy.”
For women who feel they are having memory problems, Weber has some advice.
“When someone gives you a new piece of information, it might be helpful to repeat it out loud, or for you to say it back to the person to confirm it – it will help you hold onto that information longer,” Weber said. “Make sure you have established that memory solidly in the brain.
“You need to do a little more work to make sure the information gets into your brain permanently. It may help to realize that you shouldn’t expect to be able to remember everything after hearing it just once.”
The study is published in the journal Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society
Source: University of Rochester