No, you’re not imagining it. New research out of the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois published in the journal Menopause this month, offering some concrete evidence proof that the “brain fog” striking some women in their late 40s and 50s is indeed real.
While the findings come as no surprise to the millions of women who’ve had bouts of forgetfulness as hormone levels wane, the science provides a fascinating glimpse into which aspects of memory might actually be affected – and begs big questions as to why. To learn more, we spoke with URMC study leader and neuropsychologist Dr. Miriam Weber.
Scripts: When it comes to memory troubles and menopause, we often automatically think of trouble with recall – say, making a “mental note” to pick up a gallon of milk on the way home from work. But this study suggests that this particular type of memory isn’t at issue, and the problem might actually lie with “working memory” (e.g., our ability to manipulate new information, like calculating a “30 percent off” sale price), or with our ability to keep focus amid challenging tasks. Do we have any idea why this might be – or what tricks women can use to compensate, staying sharp?
Weber: That’s a great question. We don’t know precisely why so many menopausal women seem to having difficulty in these areas; we’ve long assumed that it’s related to hormonal fluctuations, but data from this particular study doesn’t provide clear answers.
To compensate, though, most women would do well to minimize multi-tasking. By really homing in and focusing their attention on one thing at a time, they might be more successful in helping their brains encode the new information. Since our data suggests that women’s complaints aren’t associated with a true retention problem (e.g., remembering that gallon of milk), if they can successfully encode it, they should be able to hold onto it. So, tricks might be to pay careful attention, get rid of distractions, and practice repeating the new information a few times. Of course, day planners and sticky notes can’t hurt, either!
Scripts: Did any women in the study seem to escape the “memory fog?” Did the degree of memory troubles vary much among participants?
Weber: Yes. About a third of the women in our study sample didn’t have significant memory complaints, and their having fewer complaints played out in our tests – they performed better on working memory and attention tasks.
Those who did have memory complaints, however, also tended to have more symptoms of depression, anxiety and sleep difficulties – but not worse hot flashes. What’s more, their cognitive performance troubles remained even after controlling for these other symptoms – meaning the cognitive troubles can’t simply be attributed to these other symptoms. It’s not “just” depression; something more is at play.
Scripts: Was it surprising that changing hormone levels seemed unlinked to actual memory troubles?
Weber: To be honest, we weren’t completely surprised. Other studies also have failed to show a relationship in this population.
That said, we think this might be due to how we are measuring the hormone. For instance, researchers typically measure at one point in time, rather than capturing cumulative exposure – which might be important. There is some suggestion that hormonal fluctuations, rather than the absolute level at any one time, are tied to depressive symptoms in women in the menopausal transition. So, vacillating levels might have implications for cognitive problems. It certainly would be of interest for future studies!
Scripts: We know your paper doesn’t address this issue specifically, but is there thought that, after menopause, women’s cognitive abilities stabilize and/or return to pre-menopause levels?
Weber: It’s certainly possible. Back in 2009, a study published in the journal Neurology found that, in a sample of nearly 2,000 women, some very mild cognitive declines in the late transition stage did indeed rebound to early levels post-menopause. So, that particular study seems to suggest that women might stabilize and/or see their capabilities return to pre-menopause levels. Our study will follow participants for five years, so we eventually hope is to be able to shine light on this, too.
Scripts: So, what’s the big takeaway message for women?
Weber: The most important thing to realize is that there really are some cognitive changes that occur during this phase in a woman’s life. 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.
That said, it’s really important to note that any difficulties experienced are not incapacitating! She should be able to function just fine, though she might be working a little harder at it than she has in the past. Women should take comfort in knowing that their concerns are common, and that the currently available data suggests that these difficulties might actually be short-lived.
To learn more about the study, click here.