Absentmindedness, struggling to concentrate, finding it difficult to absorb information: problems with short-term memory can plague a woman as she approaches and experiences menopause. These issues, known as memory lapses or "brain fogs," can affect a woman's productivity in the workplace and her personal relationships, not to mention undermining her personal pleasures that require concentration, such as reading, watching movies, and playing board games. Memory lapses are caused primarily by hormonal imbalances, but there are other factors that can exacerbate them, too; read on to learn what they are.
Menopausal Memory Lapses
Estrogen is a hormone that affects the cognitive functions through its influence on the circulatory and immune systems. It affects the activity of the hippocampus and memory-regulating neurotransmitters in the brain, allowing the process of forming new memories to run smoothly.
When a woman is in her forties, estrogen production declines as the body prepares for menopause. This causes a hormonal imbalance that can impair short-term memory, making concentration, adaptation to changes in routine, and processing, storing, and consciously retrieving information harder than before.
Studies have shown found a strong association between menopause age and cognition, suggesting that reaching menopause at a later age benefits verbal memory.1 It has also been shown that cognition is influenced by women's lifelong hormonal patterns, not just mid-life fluctuations.
The hormonal changes that primarily cause brain fogs can also result in numerous other symptoms that can trigger or worsen memory loss. Depression, anxiety, and stress are symptomatic of memory loss, and these conditions can cause distraction, lack of interest, and tiredness that makes it hard to absorb information and later recall it. Symptoms that interrupt sleep, like night sweats and insomnia, can also result in brain fogs.
Alcohol consumption is a major contributor to memory lapses. Excessive consumption in a short space of time, known as binge drinking, hinders the brain's ability to form new memories, resulting in memory blackouts.
The long-term, heavy intake of alcohol can also intensify memory problems, as alcohol inhibits the function of the hippocampus and frontal lobes, and this effect can be intensified by lack of nutrients derived from alcohol abuse. Alcoholics also have increased susceptibility to serious memory-impairing diseases, such as hepatic encephalopathy and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Memory loss is often associated with various medical conditions, including the aforementioned stress, fatigue, and depression. Hypothyroidism, a common side effect of menopausal hormonal changes, is a condition where the body does not produce enough thyroid hormones, meaning the thyroid is therefore unable to regulate metabolism. When the metabolism does not function correctly, the entire body - including the cognitive functions - is affected; memory loss is sometimes an early symptom of hypothyroidism.
Perhaps most commonly linked with memory loss, however, is dementia, a non-reversible condition that weakens the sufferer's cognitive functions, including memory. Alzheimer's disease is perhaps the most well-known example of dementia. The earliest symptom of the condition is usually forgetfulness; the patient may experience difficulty performing tasks which require thought but were previously achievable, such as playing a card game or understanding a new routine. Becoming lost on familiar routes, losing things, and inappropriate social behavior are also common early symptoms.
It's worth remembering, however, that for women in their forties and fifties, dementia is extremely rare, and it's most likely their memory issues are symptomatic of menopause.
Menopausal brain fogs have the potential to significantly affect a woman's life, but there are ways of minimizing them and strengthening the cognitive functions. Like other skills, memory can be strengthened and improved; find lifestyle alterations and healthy habits for combating memory loss to tackle the symptom head-on and limit its impact on your lifestyle.
- Neurology. (2018). Age at menopause and lifetime cognition. Retrieved March 24, 2021 from https://n.neurology.org/content/90/19/e1673.abstract