TUESDAY, March 20 (HealthDay News) -- The memory blips and distractible moments that women say they experience during menopause may be as real as the hot flashes and poor sleep, a new study suggests.
Researchers gave women who said they were experiencing "menopause fog" a series of cognitive tests to see how well their abilities matched their complaints. Sure enough, the women who felt they had more memory problems were also the ones who did not keep track of information or maintain their focus as well.
"The main point of this study is that women are really good monitors. If a woman says, 'I'm having memory problems,' she probably is," said study co-author Pauline Maki, director of Women's Mental Health Research in the department of psychiatry at University of Illinois at Chicago.
On the other hand, people with age-related mental decline do not usually identify the problem, suggesting the memory issues in this study are not just because the women are getting older, Maki added.
The study, published in March in the journal Menopause, could help women and their doctors appreciate the reality of menopause fog. "I think some attribute it to, for example, poor sleep because of hot flashes, or poor mood, and that's why it's helpful to have these analyses," Maki said.
Previous research has found that about two-thirds of women going through menopause describe memory problems.
The current study involved 75 women who rated their memory performance based on factors like how often they forgot details and how serious their forgetfulness was. Researchers also gathered information about the women's overall health, mood and hormone levels.
The women in the study were going through an early stage of menopause called perimenopause, meaning they were having less frequent periods and beginning to experience symptoms of menopause. The participants were between 40 and 60 years of age.
Overall, 41 percent reported having forgetfulness that was serious. The women who felt their mental shortcomings were more severe were more likely to score poorly on tests of working memory and attention.
In day-to-day life, women with working memory problems would probably have to reread a story several times to make sense of the details, Maki explained. And if there were a noise in the background like a siren, women with poor attention would struggle to stay focused on the story.
On the other hand, memory complaints were not associated with problems with a longer-term type of memory, called verbal memory, which was put to the test by asking women to recall lists of words. Nevertheless, some women likely do experience verbal memory deficits at later stages of menopause or as their menopausal symptoms become more severe, Maki said.
Although the women who reported more severe memory deficits were also more likely to experience problems such as depression and hot flashes, the study found that these ailments could not entirely explain poor working memory and attention.
This suggests that menopause fog is due not just to poor mood and distractions like hot flashes and poor sleep, but to the direct effect of changing levels of hormones like estrogen. Estrogen is thought to influence parts of the brain involved in memory.
While the researchers did not find an association between level of estrogen in the blood and memory ability, it is probably changes in estrogen levels in the brain that are important, and these are next to impossible to measure, Maki said.
In addition to changes related to menopause, a number of other stressors in life, from work to taking care of children and parents, that pile up around the same time as menopause can hinder memory and ability to concentrate, said Nancy Woods, a professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing.
While the study supports that women experience memory setbacks, particularly in working memory and attention, there are some positive messages to take from it, Woods said. It is helpful for women to know that what they are going through is normal and that their memory problems are not necessarily an early sign of dementia.
In fact, research indicates that after menopause, when hormone levels stabilize, many women regain their cognitive ability, Maki said.
In the meantime, women may be able to improve their memory during menopause by taking steps like repeating information back to themselves and getting aerobic exercise.
For more on menopause, got to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
SOURCES: Pauline Maki, Ph.D., professor, psychiatry and psychology, and director, Women's Health Mental Health Research, University of Illinois at Chicago; Nancy Woods, Ph.D., R.N., professor, University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle; March 2012 Menopause
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