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Memory Troubles at Menopause: It’s Not All in Your Head

March 16, 2012

The difficulties that many women describe as memory problems when menopause approaches are real, according to a study published today in the journal Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society. 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. The results of a study by scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago validate the experiences of many women and provide some clues to what is happening in the brain as women hit menopause.

“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, PhD, 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 included 75 women from age 40 to 60 who were approaching or beginning menopause. The women underwent a battery 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.

Weber’s team found that the women’s complaints were linked to some types of memory deficits, but not others. They were much more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure what is called “working memory” – the ability to take in new information and manipulate it in their heads. Such tasks in real life might include calculating the amount of a tip after a restaurant meal, adding up a series of numbers in one’s head or adjusting one’s itinerary on the fly after an unexpected flight change. Their memory difficulties were associated with a lessened ability to keep and focus attention on a challenging task, such as doing their taxes, maintaining sharp attention on the road during a long drive, completing a difficult report at work despite boredom or getting through a particularly challenging book. 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.

Weber notes that such cognitive processes aren’t what typically come to mind when people think of “memory.” Oftentimes, people consider memory to be the ability to tuck away a piece of information, such as a grocery item you need to remember to buy, and to retrieve it later. The team found little evidence that women have problems with this ability. Weber notes, though, that the 75 women in the study were more highly educated and on average of higher intelligence than the general population, and a decline might have been difficult to detect. “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.”

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.”