Besides hot flashes, many women entering menopause complain of memory problems, including bouts of forgetfulness and struggles with “brain fog.”
Researchers writing in the journal Menopause says it's not their imagination. The results of the study, by scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago who gave women a rigorous battery of cognitive tests, validate their experiences and provide some clues to what is happening in the brain as women hit menopause.
“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.”
The study is one of only a handful to analyze in detail a woman’s brain function during menopause and to compare those findings to the woman’s own reports of memory or cognitive difficulties.
Difficulty in processing new information
In the study, women who had memory complaints were much more likely to do poorly in tests designed to measure what is called “working memory” – the ability to take in new information and manipulate it in their heads. Such tasks in real life might include calculating the amount of a tip after a restaurant meal, adding up a series of numbers in one’s head, or adjusting one’s itinerary on the fly after an unexpected flight change.
Scientists also found that the women’s reports of memory difficulties were associated with a lessened ability to keep and focus attention on a challenging task. That might include doing the taxes, maintaining sharp attention on the road during a long drive, completing a difficult report at work despite boredom, or getting through a particularly challenging book.
For women who feel they are having memory problems, Weber has some advice.
“When someone gives you a new piece of information, it might be helpful to repeat it out loud, or for you to say it back to the person to confirm it – it will help you hold onto that information longer,” Weber said. “Make sure you have established that memory solidly in the brain.
Also, you need to do a little more work to make sure the information gets into your brain permanently. It may help to realize that you shouldn’t expect to be able to remember everything after hearing it just once.