Study Finds Memory and Thinking Problems Come With Menopause

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Many women entering menopause report that they have trouble remembering things and thinking clearly. Doctors call thinking and memory issues cognitive problems. Some women may have trouble with:

  • learning new tasks
  • remembering names
  • paying attention and concentrating
  • finding the right words
  • multitasking
  • organizing thoughts
  • remembering where things are (keys, glasses, etc.)

It hasn’t been clear if these thinking and memory issues were the result of getting older in general or specifically linked to menopause.

A study has found that the ability to remember word lists got worse as women went through menopause. The worst memory problems happened during the early stages of menopause.

The study was published online on July 8, 2013 by The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Read the abstract of “Menopause Effects on Verbal Memory: Findings from a Longitudinal Community Cohort.”

We know that estradiol, a form of estrogen, affects how the brain functions. So when estrogen levels drop as a woman goes through menopause, it wouldn’t be surprising if those lower levels affected thinking and memory. Still, it’s been hard for researchers to separate the effects of menopause on memory from the expected effects of normal aging on memory.

In this study, researchers used information from the Penn Ovarian Aging Study (POAS) to see if they could tease apart the effects of menopause on memory.

The POAS included 403 women and lasted 14 years. Every 8 months for the first 5 years, researchers collected information on the women’s hormonal levels, cognitive abilities, including memory, and behavioral issues, including depression, anxiety, and stress. From years 6 through 14, the women were assessed once per year.

The women were all premenopausal when the study started (aged 35 to 47) and either went through menopause or started menopause during the study. Each time researchers collected information from the women, they classified the women as being in one of five menopausal categories:

  • premenopausal (normal menstrual cycle)
  • late premenopause (cycle length changed 7 days or more, either longer or shorter)
  • early transition (cycle length changed 7 or more days for at least two cycles or no periods for two months)
  • late transition (no periods for 3 to 11 months)
  • postmenopausal (no periods for 12 or more months)

The women’s ability to immediately recall a list of words, as well as their ability to recall the words after some time got worse as they moved from premenopause to postmenopause. The ability to immediately recall a list of words was the worst during the transition stage.

When the researchers separated the results by race, they found that black women had worse memory declines than white women. It’s not clear what’s causing this difference. More research is needed to make sure black women get the support they need as they move through menopause.

While none of the women in the POAS had been diagnosed with breast cancer, many women who’ve received chemotherapy and other treatments for breast cancer complain about problems thinking and remembering. These problems are commonly called “chemo brain” or “chemo fog.” In many cases, breast cancer treatments cause either temporary or permanent menopause. Results from the POAS suggest that going through menopause may contribute to these thinking and memory problems.

While thinking and memory problems are troubling, the good news is that most women’s problems eased somewhat as they became postmenopausal.

If you’re having thinking and memory problems, there are things you can do to help yourself. You might want to check out the transcript of Breastcancer.org’s Ask-the-Expert Online Conference on Managing Chemo Brain to read about other women’s experiences and questions, as well as the answers from Breastcancer.org medical experts. You’ll find tips on:

  • managing memory challenges
  • keeping your mind alert
  • getting more and better quality sleep
  • staying safe when you’re not so alert

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