University of California, 2009
It might start with forgetting where the keys have been left, leaving behind the shopping list, or struggling to recall names. Women of a certain age often complain of becoming forgetful - many fearing it could be an early sign of Alzheimer's. Now the largest study of its kind confirms menopausal women do suffer a dip in their ability to learn and retain information. But the good news is most will recover spontaneously.
Dr Gail Greendale, who led the study of almost 2,500 women, said her findings would strike a chord with millions of women going through the menopause. It concluded that levels of female hormones are the likely cause of memory difficulties just before the menopause begins - a stage known as perimenopausal. She said: “Sixty per cent of women state that they have memory problems during the menopause transition. But the effect of perimenopause on learning seems to be temporary. Our study found that the amount of learning improved back to pre-menopausal levels during the postmenopausal stage.”
University of Rochester Medical Center, 2012
The memory problems and “brain fog” that many women describe while going through menopause have been explained by scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago in a new study.
“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, Ph.D., 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.”
For the study, 75 women, between the ages of 40 and 60, completed a series of cognitive tests that tested several skills, including the ability to learn and retain new information, to mentally manipulate new information, and to sustain attention over time. They answered questions about depression, anxiety, hot flashes, and sleep difficulties, and their blood levels of the hormones estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) were measured.
The researchers found that the women’s complaints were tied to certain types of memory deficits, but not others. For example, women who self-reported memory difficulties were far more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure “working memory” – the ability to receive new information and manipulate it in their heads. In real life this might include figuring out the tip at a restaurant, adding up a series of numbers in one’s head, or adjusting one’s itinerary in a short time after an unexpected flight change.
Women’s reports of memory difficulties were also linked to a lessened ability to hold and focus attention on a challenging task. This might include doing the taxes, maintaining sharp attention on the road during a long drive, finishing a complex report at work despite boredom, or sticking with a particularly challenging book.
Weber said that these types of cognitive processes aren’t what usually come to mind when people think of “memory.” For example, people often consider memory to be the ability to remember a piece of information, such as a grocery item you need to remember to buy. Interestingly, the researchers found little evidence that women have difficulties with this ability. Weber notes, however, that the women in the study were more highly educated and, on average, were of higher intelligence than the average population, and a decline might have been difficult to detect.
University of Pennsylvania, 2012
Certain aspects of cognitive function related to memory declined significantly in women during the transition from pre- to postmenopausal status, another comprehensive neuropsychiatric assessment showed. Specifically, the ability to remember word lists declined significantly on tests of immediate and delayed recall. The decline was greatest during the early stages of transition to menopausal status.
Race significantly influenced performance on all but one of the tasks, as African-American women consistently had lower scores, even though the association between menopausal status and recall was similar in African-American and Caucasian women.
"These data confirm that the natural transition to menopause exerts a negative impact on immediate and delayed verbal recall," C. Neill Epperson, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and co-authors concluded. "Whether this decline can be generalized to other types of verbal memory and whether it stabilizes in the early years of the postmenopausal period is not yet known."
"The differences in cognitive performance between African-American and Caucasian women were not explained by factors examined in this study, but are of important public health concern that warrants further investigation," they added.
Many women have reported a subjective decline in memory during menopause. Whether the decline can be confirmed by objective measures, remains controversial. Estradiol affects brain chemistry and function, suggesting decreased ovarian hormone production as a potential contributor to worsening memory, irrespective of aging, the authors noted.
If you are at menopausal stage and you feel your memory is not as efficient as it used to be you may use the following 15 simple recommendations to keep your mind sharp:
1. Teach yourself an old memory trick. Known as "method of loci" (it goes back to the ancient Greeks), this helps you remember—in specific order—lists of names, places, or chores. Here's how to do it: Take an imaginary walk along a familiar path. Assign the first item on your list to a landmark along the way, and continue assigning items to landmarks as you go along.
For example, your to-do list: Make a dentist appointment, pick up dry cleaning, phone your mother. Now visualize a familiar route—the one you'd take from your home to the grocery store works fine for this exercise. Then visualize each item on your list, and assign it a place along your route. For example, your driveway is "call the dentist." Put "pick up dry cleaning" at the intersection of your driveway and the street you live on. At the big tree down the street, place "phone your mother," and so forth. Mentally run through your route and your list a few times, and it will lock itself into your mind.
2. Pay more attention. Your attention span may have suffered as a result of menopause so this may seem difficult at first, but it is vital that you listen to the information that you take in. You can't retain new information if your brain hasn't the opportunity to encode it in the first place. It will take the brain eight seconds of intense concentration to process the information as a short term memory. Limit distractions, and don't try to do too many things at once. If you focus on the information that you're trying to remember, you'll be more likely to recall it later.
3. Use all your Senses. You are much more likely to remember information if you use as many of your senses as possible. The majority of information that women will forget during menopause has been conveyed to them in visual or audio form. If you record the information in a second way - writing it down, or relating it to a smell, then you will have more chance of recalling it later on, because you will have helped to imprint the information in your brain.
4. Use old information to retain new. Use old knowledge to help you maintain new knowledge. You will just be adding to information that is already stored rather than creating a new memory. Alternatively, use old knowledge to make connections to new memories. For example, if you want to remember a new address, then make a point of connecting that new address with a location nearby that you are already aware of.
5. Active lifestyle. In one study, researchers found that people were less likely to develop dementia if they participated in some type of leisure time activity. The chances of developing dementia got lower with each additional activity a person participated in. To lower your chances of developing severe memory loss, the more activities you are involved in throughout your life, the lower your risk may be. This suggests that just as with physical health, a healthy memory requires you to use it or lose it!
6. Exercise. Working out improves circulation, which is probably connected to preserving acuity. Walking, swimming, gardening—it doesn't matter which activity you choose, as long as you engage in it on a regular basis.
7. Blood pressure. Lower your blood pressure and improve your memory. In a study of 200 men and women, those with even moderately high blood pressure (164/89) had more memory problems than those with normal blood pressures. A small amount of motherwort tincture (Leonurus cardiaca) daily dependably lowers blood pressure and can generally be used safely with drugs if desired.
8. Learn something new. Research shows that mental exercise also helps keep your mind sharp. Attend a class or two, travel, work on crossword puzzles, read challenging books or magazines—whatever it takes. Keep your brain active by enjoying interesting activities that make you think.
9. Laughter therapy. One of the recent studies shows that laughter can be used quite efficiently against the memory loss. This is the harmless, and this is good for your health in multiple dimensions.
10. Get a good night's sleep. Sleep is essential for memory consolidation as well as overall health. Although people vary widely in their individual sleep needs, research suggests that six to eight hours of sleep a night is ideal. Perhaps even more important than the amount of sleep is the quality of sleep. People with breathing problems during sleep, such as obstructive sleep apnea, can sleep for 10 hours per night but never feel refreshed in the morning. Of course, for some people, getting a good night's sleep is easier said than done, especially because e insomnia becomes more common with age.
11. Consider ginkgo biloba. This herb helps improve memory by increasing the flow of red blood cells to the brain. New studies suggest that ginkgo also acts on brain cells directly to boost mental sharpness and concentration. Note that it is recommended to check with your doctor first if you're taking any blood-thinning medication, including low-dose aspirin.
12. Eat berries. Blueberries are an especially good memory food: Researchers discovered that a blueberry-rich diet actually reversed short-term memory loss in aging rats.
13. Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol's damaging effects on brain cells are well established in the medical literature. If you're concerned about preserving your memory, limit yourself to one glass of wine just a few days a week.
14. Quit smoking. Studies show that smokers don't remember people's names and faces as well as nonsmokers do. No one knows whether smoking directly impairs memory or is merely associated with memory loss because it causes illnesses that contribute to memory loss. Smoking is especially common among people who are depressed, and depression weakens the memory. In addition, smoking increases the risk for stroke and hypertension, two other causes of memory impairment. Smoking can interfere with memory in other ways, too. For one thing, it damages the lungs, and good lung function is one of the characteristics of people whose memories stay strong in old age. In addition, smoking constricts the blood vessels to the brain, depriving it of oxygen and possibly harming neurons.
15. Ease up. Chronic exposure to the hormones released during stress affects brain function. In fact, one of these hormones, cortisol, prevents the brain from laying down new memory. To defuse stress, learn and regularly practice relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga.
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