Menopause really does cause 'brain fog' as scientists find women in their fifties struggle with working memory
Working memory is the ability to manipulate new information such as calculating a tip
10:35 GMT, 15 March 2012
It won't come as a surprise to millions of women who complain about 'brain fog' during the menopause but 'the change' can cause memory problems, according to scientists.
A team from the University of Rochester, in New York, put a group of women aged from 40 to 60 through a battery of cognitive tests.
They found many had problems with their 'working memory', which is the ability to take
in new information and manipulate it, such as calculating the amount of a tip after a restaurant
Hot flushes are a common symptom of the menopause. Now scientists are looking for closely at the cognitive effects of 'the change'
'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 study-leader Dr Miriam Weber.
'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 handful to analyse in detail a woman's brain function during menopause and to compare those findings to the woman's own reports of memory or cognitive difficulties.
It analysed 75 women who were approaching or beginning menopause.
They underwent a series of cognitive tests that looked at several skills, including their abilities to learn and retain new information, to mentally manipulate new information, and to sustain their attention over time.
They were asked about menopause symptoms related to depression, anxiety, hot flashes, and sleep difficulties, and their blood levels of the hormones estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone were measured.
Dr Weber's team found that the women's complaints were linked to some types of memory deficits, but not others.
Women who had memory complaints were much more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure working memory.
Scientists also found that the women's reports of memory difficulties were associated with a lessened ability to keep and focus attention on a challenging task. That might include doing the taxes or maintaining attention on the road during a long drive.
However, they didn't have problems with short-term memory – such as remembering to buy a grocery item later in the day.
Study leader Dr Miriam Weber said the menopause is a transition period that lasts years
Women who reported memory difficulties 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.
Generally anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of women during this stage of life report forgetfulness and other difficulties 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 Dr Weber.
'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 realised.'
The latest findings are in line with results from a previous study that Dr Weber did with Dr Mark Mapstone, associate professor of Neurology.
'There really is something going on in the brain of a woman at this stage in her life,' Dr Mapstone said.
'There is substance to their complaints that their memory is a bit fuzzy.'
Dr Weber has some advice for women suffering from menopausal memory problems.
'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,' Dr 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 was funded by the National Institute on Aging published in the journal Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society.