Menopause and Losing Your Mind, What Women Can Do
One of the complaints women have about menopause is a problem with memory and concentration, or what some women refer to as “losing your mind.” A new study indicates that the early postmenopausal stage is a time when subtle changes in cognition happen, yet the question many women have is, what can I do about it?
Memory problems are not unusual in menopause
People often associate memory problems with growing older and with the possibility of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Yet memory and concentration difficulties associated with menopause are often mild and temporary, even though they also can be frustrating and frightening.
The natural phenomenon known as menopause has several phases:
- Perimenopause, which includes the months or years that lead up to actual menopause. The perimenopause period is when the ovaries begin to produce less estrogen and stops when the ovaries cease releasing eggs. Perimenopause can last several months or up to 10 years, although the average is four years. Mood changes are common during perimenopause, although cognitive changes are not, but that doesn't mean they don't occur.
- Menopause, which is the permanent end of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Typically menopause is defined as occurring 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual period. Memory difficulties and/or problems with concentration can occur, although hot flashes are probably the most commonly experienced symptom.
- Postmenopause technically refers to all the years after a woman has reached menopause. However, experts use the term “early postmenopause” to refer to the first 12 months after a woman’s final menstrual period.
In a new study, which was conducted by Miriam T. Weber, PhD, of the University of Rochester in New York, and her colleagues, it’s been reported that the early postmenopause stage is marked by subtle changes in a woman’s cognitive function that are more significant than those that can occur during an earlier stage of menopause.
In fact, the researchers reported that women in the early postmenopause stage in their study performed worse on verbal learning, verbal memory, fine motor skills, attention, and working memory than did women in perimenopause or earlier stages of menopause. For women who need reassurance, the authors noted that “these findings suggest that women’s concerns about their memory function during the menopausal transition are warranted,” and that they may also experience cognitive difficulties during the early postmenopauseal year.
A reason for these cognitive challenges points to estrogen, the production of which declines significantly (by 40-60%) after menopause. Estrogen has an impact on regions of the brain associated with verbal memory and executive function.
What women can do
- Accept it. No one is saying you have to like the changes in memory and concentration that can occur with menopause and thereafter, but if you accept it as a temporary event, then the stress and anxiety you feel about it can be reduced. Since stress can have a negative impact on memory, this single, simple response can be helpful.
- Take notes. If you accept that memory problems will occur, then take action: stick notes on your bathroom mirror or dashboard, send emails to yourself to remind yourself to do things, and utilize that calendar on the wall and on your desk.
- Challenge yourself. Don’t take these brain changes lying down. Work your brain by challenging it with new tasks, such as doing puzzles, learning a new language, taking up a new hobby, or any activity that requires your brain to establish new neural connections.
- Take care of yourself. Positive lifestyle actions can help take the edge off of cognitive difficulties. Be sure to eat a healthful diet, engage in daily physical exercise, and practice stress management techniques, such as tai chi, yoga, deep breathing, and meditation. Don’t let cognitive challenges get you down—fight back!
The bottom line
If you are woman in the perimenopause, menopause, or early postmenopause stage of life, challenges with memory, concentration, and other cognitive functions are common, and especially in the latter mentioned phase. Rather than fret about losing your mind, you can face it and take some steps to reduce the impact.
Weber M et al. Cognition in perimenopause: the effect of transition stage. Menopause 2013. DOI:10.1097/qme.0b013e31827655e5