Menopause and Brain Health
We all know that menopause changes your body. But did you know that menopause can also affect brain health? Hormone changes caused by menopause can cause cognitive issues like memory loss, learning problems, and trouble concentrating. These changes may be so gradual that you might not notice them at first, or so insignificant that you don’t pay them any attention. But is the brain fog you’ve been experiencing really just menopause, or something more serious?
How does menopause affect memory loss?
Menopause is the gradual shut down of the female reproductive system. In the United States, the average starting age for menopause is 52. However, perimenopause (the symptomatic period) can occur much earlier, lasting anywhere from two to eight years.
Perimenopause brings a whole host of symptoms with it, including hot flashes, sleep problems, menstrual changes and notably, cognitive difficulties. More than two-thirds of menopausal women report experiencing problems with memory, concentration, and executive function. For a long time, we only had anecdotal evidence of the cognitive difficulties that menopausal women face. But, recent studies have revealed scientific evidence that “menopause brain fog” can be clinically detected.
If you’ve been having trouble concentrating on your favorite book or struggling to remember words since beginning your menopause transition, it’s not just in your head. The fluctuating hormone levels in your brain could be the cause of your minor memory loss. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about why menopause and the brain. But, one of the key factors is thought to be the declining levels of the hormone estrogen, which plays a crucial role in the brain.
Estrogen isn’t just made in the ovaries. The hypothalamus gland in your brain also manufactures precursor signal hormones that ultimately end up making estrogen elsewhere in your body. Estrogen is active in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which are important to maintaining memory and executive function.
Having proper levels of estrogen in the brain is also vital to proper aging because estrogen imbalances are thought to play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. More research on the physiological differences between men’s and women’s brains is needed to understand whether this is one of the reasons why women may be more susceptible to dementia than men.
Is it really just menopause?
Fortunately, menopause-related brain fog is often mild and can disappear on its own with time, just like other unpleasant aspects of menopause such as hot flashes. For many women, this is a huge relief. It can be incredibly cathartic to know that there’s a reason behind why you keep misplacing your phone, or struggle to concentrate on your favorite book. But there’s just one problem—how do you know if your cognitive problems are really just menopause?
The symptoms of menopause related brain fog and other age-related cognitive disorders often overlap. You might have been dismissing your brief lapses in memory as just another quirk of menopause, when in reality, they could be the start of early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Just because menopause can bring on cognitive problems, this doesn’t mean that your memory lapses are menopause-related.
But how do you tell the difference? What should you look out for when it comes to lapses with your cognitive abilities?
Menopause memory problems vs Alzheimer’s disease
Minor lapses in memory here and there happen to the best of us and are usually nothing to be concerned about. But if your cognitive problems are reaching the point they interfere with your daily quality of life, it might be time to talk to a doctor. Early symptoms for Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Repeating questions over and over
- Getting lost easily, even in a familiar area
- Trouble following directions or accomplishing simple tasks
- Difficulty remembering words, even for familiar objects
- Problems with decision-making
- Trouble handling money or remembering to pay bills on time
- Significant changes in mood, personality, or behavior
Women are over 60% more likely to develop dementia than men, so it’s vital to stay vigilant for the warning signs of dementia early on. When in doubt, it’s always best to raise your concerns with your doctor rather than dismiss them as nothing. However, even if you don’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, there are times when menopause-related cognitive decline can linger rather than naturally fade.
Estrogen and cognitive function
In this study published by the North American Menopause Society, researchers discovered that the advancement of menopause was a “key determinant of cognition” among both pre- and post-menopausal women. The women included in the study were primarily low-income women of color, some of whom also had HIV. The study lasted over a period of several years, following the women from pre-menopause all the way to post-menopause. Every two years, the women underwent testing to assess their cognitive abilities, including memory, verbal learning, attention span, processing speed, motor skills, executive function, and more.
Even after adjusting for age and other factors, the overall odds for cognitive function decline still increased throughout menopause. Many of those in the test group had even reached a “clinically significant level of cognitive impairment” by the end of the study. Although HIV might have had a role to play in the severity of the decline, cognitive problems also persisted in women that didn’t have HIV involved in the study.
It’s not currently known why menopause-related cognitive problems naturally fade in some women and linger in others. Fortunately, there are ways that you can help yourself through these cognitive issues.
How can I relieve cognitive symptoms brought on by menopause?
In general, living a healthy lifestyle can help you balance your hormones during menopause and alleviate cognitive symptoms. This includes eating a healthy diet, exercising, and keeping your mind active.
Nutrition. Eat foods that promote brain health, such as whole fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and nuts.
- Fish are full of omega-3s, which can boost brain power.
- Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and collards are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like folate and vitamin E.
- Take care to avoid eating sugar and processed foods, which can not only increase brain fog, but worsen other menopausal symptoms, like hot flashes and sleep disruptions.
- Eating dairy products rich in calcium can also help offset your risk of developing osteoporosis, which increases during menopause.
Exercise. Regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and an oxygenated brain is a healthy brain. Even a brisk walk down the block with your partner or pet can help you lift your mental fog. Exercise can also help ward off menopause-related weight gain, if you’re concerned about that.
Meditation. Of course, you can also exercise your brain directly. Mindfulness exercises like meditation can increase your focus and help you concentrate on your important tasks more easily. You can even combine mindfulness with physical activities like yoga to get the best of both worlds!
The bottom line
While menopause can leave you feeling foggy or out of sorts, you can take steps to alleviate your symptoms by living a healthy lifestyle. Keep an eye out for any cognitive problems that negatively impact your life, and contact your doctor if you feel that something is out of place. Whether you or someone you love is going through this transitionary period in life, remember to always be kind, patient, and understanding.