A study published today in the journal Menopause, from the North American Menopause Society, confirms the frustration that many women feel with memory problems as they approach menopause.

Scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois at Chicago finally validated the claims of many women in their 40s and 50s who complain of “brain fog” or forgetfulness. 75 women from ages 40 to 60 were give an array of cognitive tests which not only confirm the problem but also provide some explanation as to its occurrence and explain what is happening in the brain during menopause.

Miriam Weber, Ph.D., the neuropsychologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center who led the study explains :

“The most important thing to realize is that there really are some cognitive changes that occur during this phase in a woman’s life … 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 tests included attention span over time as well as the ability to learn and manipulate new information. The researchers found that only some of the problems were linked to memory deficit. The women were also questioned about their menopause symptoms, including depression, anxiety, hot flashes, and sleep difficulties. Blood levels of the hormones estradiol and follicle-stimulating hormone were measured.

Those who complained of a foggy memory did poorly on tests designed to gauge what is called “working memory”, this gives a person the ability to take in new information as well as manipulate it mentally. An example might include adding up numbers in your head or adjusting an itinerary or schedule. Problems also included maintaining attention span on a long drive or getting through a long book.

Weber points out that what people consider memory, such recalling items needed on a shopping trip or remembering a phone number is only a small part of memory function, and most women were not having issues with these simpler traditional kinds of memory function.

Although there was no link found between hormone levels and memory function, researchers did note that those with memory problems were generally more prone to other symptoms of menopause, such as sleeping difficulty and anxiety.

Weber further explains that :

“If you speak with middle-aged women, many will say, yes, we’ve known this. We’ve experienced this … But it hasn’t been investigated thoroughly in the scientific literature … Science is finally catching up to the reality that women don’t suddenly go from their reproductive prime to becoming infertile. There is this whole transition period that lasts years. It’s more complicated than people have realized.”

The latest confirmation aligns with results from an earlier study that Weber did with Mark Mapstone, Ph.D., associate professor of Neurology, and results from a study involving hundreds of women, that only used less sensitive measures to look at cognitive performance. He concludes that :

“There really is something going on in the brain of a woman at this stage in her life … There is substance to their complaints that their memory is a bit fuzzy.”

Weber finishes with some advice for women experiencing these problems :

“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 … Make sure you have established that memory solidly in the brain … 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.”

Written by Rupert Shepherd