Women entering menopause sometimes report that they feel fuzzy or are losing their mental sharpness. It's not clear to what extent menopause affects memory, or whether this is a consequence of normal aging. A study by the National Institute on Aging concluded that older people cannot commit information to memory as effectively as younger people, but both groups retrieve information from memory equally well.
Although most of us couldn't care less about a rat's menopause, that trusty laboratory animal is teaching us a few things about estrogen and the brain that may apply to women. When pre-menopausal levels of estrogen are present in a rat's brain, three things happen:
- its nerve cells grow and are well sustained
- the number of connections between nerve cells increases and allows for ever better communication
- the protein that helps prepare the signals sent between cells increases in production
Bottom line: The pre-menopausal rat is probably able to remember where the cheese is from day to day, week to week.
We can use the information we have about estrogen to speculate that when your estrogen levels are low, or you are taking a drug that blocks the effects of estrogen (such as tamoxifen), your brain cells' ability to receive, communicate, and store information may be reduced, resulting in decreased memory. Studies that have compared women taking tamoxifen to women taking placebo, however, showed similar reports of memory loss in both sets of women.
Fatigue, anxiety, and depression have a potent effect on memory too. Chemotherapy can affect memory. Radiation to the breast area has no effect on short-term memory or other mental functions, but radiation to the whole brain for metastatic disease can have a profound effect. Just as it can affect anything else, our genetic makeup may influence how our memory functions.
Memory is also very dependent on mental conditioning—how often and how long you use your memory and other brain functions. New information about the brain indicates that contrary to past belief, brain cells are not fixed in number. No matter how old you are you can still grow new brain cells. Just like the rest of your body, the more rigorously and regularly you "exercise" your brain, the better it will function. So keep your brain busy; keep learning new things all the time, and stir up your memory by testing yourself on what you'd like to remember—telephone numbers or family birthdays.
After menopause, many women begin a slow but steady weight gain. As people age, their metabolic rate slows, so they need fewer calories to maintain their normal weight. If you're less physically active as you age, but consume the same number of calories, the result is weight gain. Changing a lifetime's eating habits is not easy, and weight gain is a big issue for women who have had breast cancer. Some studies have found a correlation between obesity and a higher risk of breast cancer.
If you're done with breast cancer treatment and want to lose weight, visit the Eating to Lose Weight After Treatment pages in the Nutrition section.