March 16, 2012 -- Along with hot flashes and night sweats, memory problems are a common complaint of menopausal women. Now a new study finds evidence that menopause “brain fog” may be real.
The research provides clues about changes in women’s brains as they transition through the “change,” finding key differences between the memory issues women in the study had around the time of menopause and those most often associated with aging.
“I think the take-home message is that there is something to the complaints about memory during this phase of life,” says University of Rochester Medical Center neuropsychologist Miriam T. Weber, PhD. “The memory issues we saw were distinctly different from the kind of issues seen in older populations.”
Working Memory and Menopause
The study included 75 women who were tested on different aspects of memory and thinking.
All of the women were experiencing menopause-related changes in their menstrual cycles at the time of testing, but had had at least one period during the previous year.
Women who had memory complaints were more likely to perform poorly on tests designed to measure working memory, which Weber describes as the ability to take in new information and manipulate it.
Tasks that involve working memory might include calculating the amount of a tip to leave at a restaurant or changing one’s itinerary at the last minute.
The researchers found little evidence that the women had problems storing and retrieving information, which is common in patients with age-related memory loss.
Psychiatry and psychology professor Pauline Maki, PhD, who also worked on the study, says menopausal women tend to be much better than older people at recognizing and assessing their memory deficits.
Maki is director of Women’s Mental Health Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It may be that women are generally more tuned in to bodily changes because so many changes are happening all at once,” she tells WebMD.
Hormones and Menopause ‘Brain Fog’
The study, published this week in the journal Menopause, did not show a link between observed memory problems and estrogen levels.
Weber tells WebMD this may be because estrogen levels fluctuate so dramatically during menopause that a single measure may tell very little.
“My personal bias is that memory issues around this time of life are related to estrogen, but our study wasn’t able to show this,” she says.
North American Menopause Society (NAMS) executive director Margery Gass, MD, who is an ob-gyn, says although many women notice new problems with memory as they approach menopause, many others do not.
“Many women don’t have these issues at all, and the good news is that for those who do have them, the memory deficits appear to be transient.”
Weber says menopausal women with memory complaints should try to avoid multitasking, especially when they are trying to learn or remember new information.
“Eliminating distractions can really help,” she says. “Rather than working on a document and checking email when making an appointment, just focus on the appointment and write it down.”