Menopause and Memory Loss:
New Research Explains Why Menopausal Women Often Feel Forgetful
Along with the hot flashes, sleepless nights and mood swings, many women also report another symptom that comes along with menopause: forgetfulness.
“We see a lot of women who are afraid they are losing their minds,” said Miriam Weber, Ph.D., a senior instructor of neurology from the University of Rochester Medical Center, who conducted a study on the topic with colleague Mark Mapstone, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology. “A lot of women complain that their thinking or their memory isn’t what it used to be. Their big fear is that it’s early Alzheimer’s disease.”
Menopausal women aren’t forgetful, they’ve just got too much going on to really commit things to their memory in the first place.
The researchers found no link between “forgetful” women going through menopause and Alzheimer’s, but they did find something else: the forgetfulness doesn’t stem from an impaired memory, it stems from stressed women with busy lives who have a harder time learning, or “encoding,” new information.
Not a Memory Problem After All
“This is not what most people think of traditionally when they think of memory loss,” said Mapstone. “It feels like a memory problem, but the cause is different. It feels like you can’t remember, but that’s because you never really learned the information in the first place.”
The researchers tested several cognitive skills of 24 women who complained of memory problems. They found, as previous studies have, no evidence that the women, who were approaching menopause, had any more memory problems than the rest of the population.
What they did find, however, was that the women had a harder time learning new information, which could be mistakenly perceived as a memory problem. None of the women actually had an impaired ability to learn new information, the researchers pointed out.
Hectic Lives, Stress and Hormones May All Play a Part
The team compared the problem to a doctor’s visit in which a patient is told something serious is wrong, then given a lot of detailed information. Chances are that when the patient gets home he or she won’t remember a lot of it, simply because they were so worried and distracted at the time of the conversation. The information wasn’t forgotten, it was never really heard in the first place.
Such is the case with many middle-aged women who juggle careers, kids, home responsibilities and aging parents on a daily basis.
“When people spread their attention thin, it’s difficult to encode new information. When they’re worried or anxious about being late for work, or the problems of an aging parent — that sort of stress can rob your attentional resources and impact your ability to encode information properly,” said Mapstone.
Ironically, not worrying about the forgetfulness could actually help to alleviate the problem, Weber said.
“What characterizes these women is that they’re being pulled in a lot of different directions … Then they’re going through this dramatic hormonal change … There really is something going on. And perhaps knowing that their perceived problems with memory do not suggest early dementia might alleviate their concerns and actually improve their functioning — it’s one less thing to worry about,” he said.
Easing Menopausal Symptoms Naturally
If you’re a woman in your mid-40s or early 50s and menopause-related symptoms have you feeling tired, sweaty, achy, bloated and moody, there are some simple tricks that can help.
1. Ease Stress
As the study above found, simply putting too much on your plate can lead to increased feelings of “forgetfulness” and will also certainly make you more tired and moody. Make stress-relief a priority in your life by:
- Setting aside time to do something you like everyday.
- Learning to say “no” if you feel overwhelmed.
- Incorporating relaxation, such as taking a warm bath or doing yoga, into your daily routine.
- Surrounding yourself with positive-minded friends and family.
2. Try an Herbal Hormone Balancing Formula
Women going through menopause experienced fewer migraines, mood swings and bouts of insomnia when they exercised one hour a day, four days a week.
The most commonly used herb worldwide to promote female hormone balancing is Chaste berry. Along with additional herbs and nutrients, including calcium and magnesium.
“Exercise compensates nicely for declining levels of estrogen,” said Wolfgang Kemmler, PhD, who led a study on the topic. The German study of 78 early postmenopausal women found that women who exercised for one hour (with both aerobic and strength training) four days a week experienced fewer:
- Mood swings
- Bouts of insomnia
… than women who did not exercise. They also had the added benefits of:
- Maintaining bone mass
- Losing 2 percent body fat and one inch from their waists
- Reducing cholesterol by 5 percent
On the other hand, women who did not exercise lost 8 percent of their bone mass and had increases in body fat, waist measurements and cholesterol.
Want to Improve Your Memory? Go to Bed!
Anyone who’s suffered through a bout of insomnia knows the foggy-headed feeling that comes with it the next day. It can feel as though your mind is working in slow motion.
The findings of a particular study make perfect sense, then, as it was found that a good night’s sleep has the opposite affect on your brain — it can actually help to improve your memory.
The study, published in the journal Neuroscience, involved 12 college-aged individuals who were taught a sequence of skilled finger movements (similar to a piano scale), then tested on their ability to remember them after a 12-hour period of wake or sleep.
Meanwhile, an MRI measured their brain activity and showed that, after sleep, some areas of the brain were more active and others were noticeably less active. Together, the brain activity changes that occurred after sleep resulted in improvements in the participants’ motor skill performance.
Infants may need much more sleep than adults because they’re busy “solidifying” newly learned skills in their brains.
“The MRI scans are showing us that brain regions shift dramatically during sleep,” says the study’s lead author, Matthew Walker, PhD, director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory. “When you’re asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions within the brain. Consequently, when you awaken, memory tasks can be performed both more quickly and accurately and with less stress and anxiety.”
Interestingly, when a person learns a new skill, the memories are vulnerable until they are “solidified” in the brain. It appears that sleeping plays a key role in this process, which may explain why infants, who are constantly learning new skills, require so much more sleep than adults.
Likewise, stroke patients and other people who have suffered brain injuries may also benefit from increased amounts of sleep as part of their rehabilitation program.
Even More Reasons to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
As though improved memory weren’t enough incentive, there are many other reasons why getting plenty of shut-eye is a wise move. When we sleep:
- Muscle tissue is rebuilt and restored
- Growth hormone is secreted (this is important for kids but also for rebuilding tissue in adults)
- Mental energy is restored
Sticking with a relaxing bedtime routine can help you fall fast asleep every night.
And a good night’s sleep is important for everything from improving your mood and mental alertness to giving you energy and stamina to get through the day.
On the other hand, if you don’t get the sleep you need:
- Your immune system may become impaired, leaving you less able to fight off disease
- You may feel irritable and have poor memory, poor concentration and mood swings
- You’re more likely to feel angry, pessimistic and sad
- Your coordination, reaction time and judgment may all be negatively affected, which is particularly dangers while driving
Tips for a Sound Night’s Sleep
Sometimes, even with the best intentions, it can be difficult to get to sleep each night. If you struggle with falling asleep, find that you wake up during the night or sleep restlessly in general, try these tips for a peaceful night of slumber and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Don’t take stress to bed; rather, combat stress and anxiety during the day. Taking calming supplements is can be important for keeping the body more peaceful during anxiety. Supplements that support the central nervous system and will give you a better chance of recovering from the aftermath of stress.
- Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
- Exercise (but not too close to bedtime, as it could keep you up).
- Keep your bedroom cool, quiet, and dark–and use it only for sleep.
- Massage your feet.
- Stretch a bit before you lie down.
- Once you are in bed, listen to relaxing music or a relaxation or sleep CD to help you “shift gears” and relax into sleep.
- Remember to consider your magnesium levels. When there is a deficiency of the calming mineral magnesium, it can show in the brain neurons as depression, insomnia, and even memory loss. Stress, eating refined foods, and poor eating habits can all lead to a magnesium deficiency.