The UCLA researchers looked at processing speed, verbal memory and working memory (how quickly information is processed) in 2,362 women who were 45 to 57 years old when first tested. They were followed for more than four years.
Assessments were conducted during four stages of the transition: premenopause (menstrual periods remained regular); early perimenopausal (some irregularity but no long gaps); late perimenopause (missing a period for three to 11 months); postmenopausal (having no period for a year).
"Women started off premenopausal and went into menopause so we measured cognitive performance at different parts of the menopause transition," Karlamangla explained. "Much to our surprise, cognitive functioning did not actually decline in any group."
In fact, it improved in all groups, as is often seen after repeated testing, Karlamangla said.
But women in late perimenopause showed less improvement in processing speed than women in the other three phases.
"Learning was not as good in the late perimenopausal stage as in the early perimenopausal phase," Karlamangla said.
And both early and late perimenopausal women showed fewer gains in verbal memory than their counterparts in either premenopause or postmenopause.
Starting hormone therapy (estrogen or progesterone) before the last period seemed to help cognitive function, whereas starting after the last period was linked to smaller improvements in test scores than achieved by women who did not take hormones, the study found.
The researchers are still studying whether menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes play any role in memory and learning fluctuations during this transition.
"For older women, meaning after 60 or 65 years, it's pretty clear from several studies that starting hormone therapy isn't going
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